Update, February 6, 2013: National Security Advisor John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA director on Feb. 7, 2013 has revived criticism of the targeted killing program he helped institute. On Feb. 5, the Washington Post and New York Times revealed that the United States uses an airfield in Saudi Arabia as a base for unmanned aerial vehicles conducting surveillance and combat missions -- a fact first reported by the Times of London, but previously unacknowledged in the U.S. media.
The biggest revelation about the base is not that it exists, per se -- as Micah Zenko and Emma Welch note here, it's hardly the only U.S. drone base, and not even the only drone base on the Arabian Peninsula -- but that it exists in Saudi Arabia. The presence of U.S. forces has long been a point of contention with Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative population, many of whom see Americans (and particularly non-Muslims) under arms in their country as a desecration of the holy sites in the kingdom, a grievance cited frequently by terrorists promoting violence against the United States, including Osama bin Laden. Brennan was reportedly instrumental in negotiating U.S. access for the airfield in Saudi Arabia, where he was previously a CIA station chief. Construction seems to have taken place in 2010, and it was from this base that the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011 was launched, according to the New York Times' account.
Though the targeted killing program remains shrouded in secrecy, the Saudi base is the latest instrument of the program leak to the public. Here is the rest of what we know about America's secret network of drone bases.
* * *
Tuesday's New York Times features a blockbuster story, based on interviews with some three dozen current and former Obama administration officials, about the White House decision-making process behind the highly controversial U.S. policy of targeted killings. In it, we learn that while there are near-weekly interagency meetings with the 100 or so officials who compile the "kill list," President Barack Obama is intimately involved in individual targeting decisions and most of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 suspected militants or terrorists killed by the United States outside the battlefield have died via drone strikes.
But Obama's policy of killing by remote control is by no means new. Over the last decade, America's overseas use of drones has expanded exponentially in scope, location, and frequency. Beyond their use across the battlefields of Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, U.S. drones have been used to target suspected militants and terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as to conduct surveillance missions over Colombia, Haiti, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, the Philippines, Turkey, and beyond.
To maximize flight time over these countries, the U.S. military and the CIA require a network of geographically dispersed air bases and the explicit support of host nations. Stationed at these bases are the drones and what's known as the "launch recovery element" -- the personnel who control the drones during take-off and landing, load and unload munitions, and provide routine maintenance. Many drones are based at long-established airfields in host countries that are quietly expanded and modernized by American engineers.
The countries that are willing to host U.S. drone operations have shifted as their political sensitivities have evolved. While the United States lost access to both Iraq and Pakistan in 2011, other host nations are more tolerant, albeit more evasive. For instance, a remote CIA airstrip in the Persian Gulf was reportedly completed in September, although the country remains publicly unidentified.
Given the politically sensitive nature of stationing U.S. government personnel or private contractors to support drone operations in another country's sovereign territory, it is impossible to identify and verify the complete architecture of air bases from which U.S. strike and spy drones fly. Many journalists and researchers have previously written about American drone bases, from which this piece benefitted tremendously. The 12 bases that appear below, scattered across three continents, are but a representative sample of drone bases around the world compiled through publicly available information. There are assuredly others, perhaps at Masirah Island Air Base in Oman or Socotra Island Air Field off the coast of Yemen. We welcome updates and corrections.