Drone, Sweet Drone

The debate over domestic surveillance is heating up. But don't panic yet.

Although the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been flying drones above U.S. borders for seven years, the drones' current uses, and potential expansion thereof, are now a contentious political issue. Last week, a Navy Global Hawk surveillance drone crashed just off the coast of Maryland. The very next day Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012, which would limit the federal uses of drones within the United States to patrolling borders, preventing "imminent danger to life," and responding to high risk of a terrorist attack. The day after that, a prominent technology blog declared: "Revealed: 64 Drone Bases on American Soil."

Can we all take a deep breath?

Yes, such headlines feed the justified worries of many Americans about how drones could be used within the United States. Like other first-world security services, CBP fulfills its mandate largely by substituting remote monitoring and surveillance technology for human eyeballs on the ground. Of particular concern now is the prospect of a fleet of drones used by CBP that could potentially spy on -- or, in some extreme versions, bomb -- U.S. citizens. The conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer summarized one line of criticism in a recent rant about the prospect of domestic drones:

I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military, inside of the United States. They didn't like standing armies. It has all kinds of statutes against using the army in the country. A drone is a high-tech version of an old Army-issue musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt the bad guys. But not in America.

Americans are right to be deeply concerned about the seemingly inevitable adoption of drones by federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as by corporations and academic researchers. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided approximately 300 certificates of authorization drones to fly over the United States, although some in the aerospace industry believe there could be as many as 30,000 in the skies by 2020. And the fears of many Americans are heightened by the lack of transparency and oversight of U.S. drone strikes abroad since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But much of the anxiety surrounding CBP drones -- intensified by the false, yet oft-repeated, claim that the Environmental Protection Agency used "military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations" -- is overblown.

The CBP's reach is admittedly vast. It is the "largest law enforcement air force in the world," according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), with an air fleet comprising more than 270 manned aircraft -- including modern Blackhawk helicopters and P-3 Orion maritime surveillance planes -- as well as a total of nine unarmed Predator B drones, which were deployed to the southwest border in 2005 and the northern border in 2009. Of greater concern are mobile Blackhawks, which are vastly more capable than their Predator cousins. According to a CBP official's recent congressional testimony, "The new and converted Black Hawks offer greater speed and endurance, greater lift capacity, more sophisticated onboard data processing... the ideal platform for confronting border violence and supporting operations in hostile environments." Now that's scary!

Yet despite its sizeable fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft, CBP is already unable to meet increasing border patrol demands -- which include detecting illegal activity, conducting search-and-rescue missions, surveying natural disaster areas or Mississippi River levees, and transporting agents and equipment -- on top of its day-to-day responsibilities, such as fostering trade and travel flows into the United States. The agency is responsible for guarding and monitoring 7,000 miles of shared borders with Mexico and Canada, 95,000 miles of shoreline, and 329 ports of entry. Even with a workforce of 60,000, CBP met just 73 percent of requests for its air assets in fiscal year 2010 -- the goal is 95 percent -- due to the lack of maintenance for aging aircraft, insufficient all-weather planes, and understaffing, according to the GAO. Surveillance drones offer the CBP a number of advantages over manned aircraft, such as longer mission duration over remote areas, while providing near real-time imagery via video cameras and thermal infrared and synthetic aperture radars. 

Although variants of the Predator are configured to carry armed missiles, it is important to note that CBP drones will not bomb U.S. citizens. There is a common misperception, perpetuated by the media, that all drones drop bombs. But less than 4 percent of the Pentagon's 6,316 drones, for instance, are armed and capable of conducting strike missions. And in a voice vote regarding DHS funding on June 7, the House of Representatives stipulated: "None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles."

The primary issue with CBP drones is not that they are used, but how they are used -- specifically, that drones are rushed into the field before the requisite framework, plans, and resources are fully developed. A report released by the DHS inspector general in May found that "CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to do the following: achieve the desired level of operation; acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance, and equipment; and coordinate and support stakeholder needs." At the same time, CBP Predator B drones cost more than three times more to fly per hour than their Department of Defense counterparts. Despite the high costs, some members of Congress -- specifically the 58-member Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus -- continue to push drones on the CBP. Last fall, Congress appropriated $32 million to the CBP to purchase three additional Predator drones, after which a CBP official acknowledged, "We didn't ask for them."

As a result, CBP drones have had limited success in the field so far. In 2011, CBP drones helped to locate 7,600 pounds of marijuana, valued at a paltry $19 million. Drones also reportedly laid the groundwork for the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants between 2006 and 2011 -- an underwhelming statistic considering that a total of 327,577 people were captured in 2011 alone.

The good news about domestic drones is that, unlike the "covert" missions conducted abroad by the Pentagon and CIA, there is a great deal of publicly available information detailing their bases, operational command and control, missions, and costs. And, in contrast to media portrayals, domestic drones used for CBP missions enjoy measured support among U.S. citizens. In a recent poll, 64 percent of respondents approved of the use of drones "to control illegal immigration on the nation's border," and 80 percent "to help with search and rescue missions." (Sixty-seven percent were opposed to drones enforcing speed limits -- even though manned aircraft already perform this function in 19 states across the country.)

If properly planned for and funded, drones can play a critical, niche role in monitoring U.S. borders. But if there is anything to be learned from America's use of drones abroad, it is that mission creep follows. Once security forces have access to the near real-time video and radar surveillance that drones can provide, they become addicted -- and subsequently develop new missions for how drones can be used. This is the reason that, in order to assure the protection of privacy and civil liberties, there must be rigorous, sustained, and effective oversight by Congress and the courts of all drones in the United States.

John Moore/Getty Images

National Security

Where the Drones Are

Mapping the launch pads for Obama's secret wars.

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.


Location: Incirlik, Turkey

Coordinates: 37, 35.26

Last November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that four U.S. Predator drones would be deployed to Incirlik, a massive air base primarily used by U.S. and Turkish forces that serves as a staging point for regional air operations. (In general, four aircraft are required to provide around-the-clock surveillance over a particular area of interest -- one airborne while the others take off, land, refuel, or undergo maintenance.) The four Predators are launched and recovered by 15 U.S. airmen from 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, while the Nevada-based contractor Battlespace Flight Services flies the drones. Real-time intelligence from the Predators is transmitted via satellite link to the combined intelligence fusion cell in Ankara. The cell, opened in November 2007 to process surveillance imagery from U.S. manned and unmanned systems flying over Iraq, is staffed by Turkish and U.S. military personnel working side by side to provide targeting information on suspected members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, for strikes by Turkish F-16s in Turkey or Northern Iraq. According to reports, on Dec. 28, a Predator provided video imagery of a caravan of suspected PKK militants near the Turkish border. After Turkish officers directed the drone to fly elsewhere, Turkish aircraft attacked the caravan with four sorties, reportedly killing 34 civilians.


Location: Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan

Coordinates: 34.40, 70.50

Both the U.S. Air Force and the CIA use Jalalabad Airfield as a launching pad for their fleets of Predator and Reaper drones. In August 2009, the New York Times reported, "Officials said the CIA now conducted most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly." In late 2011, when the Pakistani government kicked the remaining U.S. drones and their support personnel out of Shamsi air base, they were reportedly relocated to Jalalabad.

Location: Khost Airfield, Afghanistan

Coordinates: 33.33, 69.95

Located adjacent to the western border of Pakistan, Khost -- also known as Forward Operating Base Chapman -- is under the operational command of the CIA. Khost houses CIA officers, operatives, and analysts who collect, assess, and interpret intelligence information as well as select suspected militants as targets. Because of its location in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan, Khost also serves as a recruitment center for informants. It is perhaps best known as the site of a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of seven Americans on Dec. 30, 2009 -- the deadliest day for the CIA since the 1983 bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. After the attack, the CIA retaliated swiftly with 11 attacks that killed nearly 100 suspected militants, marking one of the most intense periods of the drone program thus far.

Location: Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan

Coordinates: 31.50, 65.85

Kandahar Airfield is one of the largest bases in Afghanistan. Run by the U.S. military, it serves as a major base for both surveillance and strike drone operations in Afghanistan, as well as intermittently into Pakistan to pursue suspected militants. The U.S. Air Force also shares some of the surveillance footage with Islamabad. It is also home to the RQ-170 Sentinel -- nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" -- an advanced surveillance drone that reportedly was used to monitor the Abbottabad compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was ultimately killed.

Location: Shindand Airfield, Afghanistan

Coordinates: 33.39, 62.26

On Nov. 29, 2011, a CIA-controlled RQ-170 Sentinel drone flying out of the Shindad base crashed 140 miles inside Iran. (The United States began flying drones over Iran from Iraq as early as April 2004.) Although Iranian officials claimed to have downed the drone through electronic warfare, U.S. officials countered that the drone had suffered from a technical malfunction. Before the incident, the Sentinel had reportedly flown undetected over Iran for three years, making hundreds of sorties over dozens of suspected nuclear weapons sites up to 600 miles into the country. U.S. officials claim that Sentinel surveillance flights over Iran have continued despite the well-publicized crash.

Location: Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar

Coordinates: 25.12, 51.32

Al-Udeid features the longest and most advanced runways in the Middle East, serves as a major transshipment site for American troops and resources headed to Afghanistan, and also hosts the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), which relocated from Saudi Arabia in 2003. The airbase serves as a drone operations command and control center throughout the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, for the U.S. Air Force, which through CAOC manages day-to-day joint air operations. Lawyers are stationed at Al-Udeid 24 hours a day to approve drone strikes carried about by the U.S. military.

Location: Zamboanga, Philippines

Coordinates: 6.92, 122.06

The Philippine government reportedly allows the United States to fly unmanned surveillance drones to monitor militants from the al Qaeda-linked group Abu Sayyaf on the island Mindanao. The most active site is in Zamboanga, one of the locations where the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines is based. U.S. drones are said to have provided the location of prominent Abu Sayyaf militants that were subsequently killed in an air strike carried out by the Philippines Air Force in February 2012.

Location: Al-Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates

Coordinates: 24.25, 54.55

In January 2002, the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) was deployed to Al-Dharfa to support operations in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. At the time, there were only 300 American servicemembers on the base. According to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, by September 2007 there were 1,300 Air Force personnel at Al-Dhafra. The 380th AEW also brought manned U-2 spy planes and the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk to the base. In 2005, an anonymous Air Force official stated, "There is a major Global Hawk operating base being built in the UAE." According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, in June 2010 there were four Global Hawks at Al-Dhafra; by June 2011, there were six (five Air Force and one Navy). More recently, the United States has begun deploying F-22s, its advanced stealth fighter. According to Matthew Aid's book Intel Wars, Global Hawks operating out of Al-Dhafra "fly daily [signals intelligence] and imagery collection missions along Iran's borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and along Iran's Persian Gulf coastline."

Location: Al-Anad Air Base, Yemen

Coordinates: 13.18, 44.76

In the heart of the Lahij province in southern Yemen, the U.S. military works directly with Yemeni forces to monitor, target, and kill suspected militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the global jihadist group. The close cooperation between the United States and Yemen was brought to light in a confidential cable published by WikiLeaks, which quoted then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." U.S. drones often provide surveillance information to Yemeni forces to carry out assaults, as well as to launch airstrikes. According to the Long War Journal, the United States has conducted 21 airstrikes in the first five months of 2012, more than double the number in all of 2011.


Location: Arba Minch, Ethiopia

Coordinates: 6.04, 37.59

In January 2007, the U.S. Air Force carried out at least two attacks with AC-130 gunships against suspected Islamic militants in Somalia from a base in Ethiopia. After reports emerged with details of the attacks, the Ethiopian government expelled the U.S. military from that base. In October 2011, after four years of negotiations, the U.S. military was permitted to reestablish a presence in Ethiopia, with Reaper drones being flown out of the Arba Minch airfield for surveillance missions over Somalia.

Location: Camp Lemonier, Djibouti

Coordinates: 11.54, 43.15

Six days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a Memorandum of Notification that authorized the CIA to kill a "high-value target list" of 24 al-Qaeda leaders. Included on this list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, mastermind of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. On Nov. 3, 2002, a Predator drone killed Harithi and six others in Yemen, marking the first targeted killing outside of a battlefield. The drone reportedly originated and was controlled from Camp Lemonier. The CIA has also flown drones launched from Djibouti over Somalia, targeting militants affiliated with al Qaeda. Camp Lemonier has been the home of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa since 2003, and reportedly houses 3,500 U.S. personnel from various military and civilian agencies.

Location: Mahe, Seychelles

Coordinates: -4.6700823, 55.5146885

In 2011, the U.S. military reopened a base on the island nation of Seychelles -- an archipelago roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. -- for a small fleet of armed MQ-9 Reaper drones. Although the Seychelles had previously served as a base for surveillance drones to track pirates in the Indian Ocean, classified U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that drones have also carried out strike missions against al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. According to another cable, Seychelles President James Michel requested -- twice -- that the inaugural launch of U.S. drones be documented with a photo-op or celebration. U.S. drone operations from the Seychelles have continued, as demonstrated by a MQ-9 Reaper crashing into the Indian Ocean after skidding off the runway in December 2011.

Joel Sagat/AFP/Getty Images