The Air Force's Drone Base in a Box

Drone bases, they can pop up anywhere nowadays. The U.S. Air Force's special operations command now has mini bases for drones that can be packed in a cargo plane and transported anywhere in the world, launching unmanned missions within four-hours of arrival at their destination.

A typical base includes two partially dismantled MQ-1 Predator drones, plus the Hellfire missiles and fuel the planes need to fly and shoot. The base also has two tents: one to shelter the drones and another to house the bank of computers that serves as the drones' cockpit. (That second tent also comes with a bit of extremely Spartan living space for the crews and aircraft mechanics.) All told, 18 cargo pallets and 32 people constitute the base in a box that Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton, Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) chief of requirements, described as a "rapid reaction fleet."

"After we unload this capability wherever we're at, four hours later we have a flying, armed [drone]," said Elton during a speech at the Air Force Association's annual conference just outside of Washington. And that gives special operators the "speed so that we can respond to certain crises."

Drones have, of course, become a central component to U.S. military operations worldwide. But they're especially important on missions to hunt and kill militants in remote corners of the world. That's when the drones' ability to conduct 24/7 surveillance and to strike from a distance come in especially handy.

Hence the base-in-a-box. The command has deployed the tiny bases twice since 2012, according to Elton, who showed a picture one of the aircraft taxiing along a plywood ramp at an undisclosed "international airport" in a dusty corner of the world.

"I won't get into specifics on where we went, but we had something happen and we needed ISR so we launched on very short notice and we set up in another country to support an operation there," said Elton, describing a six week-long deployment for the drones.

AFSOC provides the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones used by the U.S. special operations community.

While the command only has the ability today to deploy its MQ-1 Predators in a hurry, it is trying to develop a way to pack up its fleet of larger MQ-9 Reapers in "the next couple of years," Elton said.

This comes as AFSOC is working to station its fleet of several dozen small, civilian-looking propeller planes at remote airstrips in every corner of the globe.

"We've got aircraft that, for the most part, stay forward and we rotate through our crews and maintainers," said Elton.

These planes, often painted in civilian-looking livery, are used to move U.S. military and intelligence operatives to small airports around the developing world without attracting the attention that would come with the arrival of a large U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

AFSOC uses twin-engine, Dornier 328 propeller planes to get operatives to little regional airfields across a place like Africa, for example. It then uses even smaller M-28 Skytrucks to bring operators to places in the countryside that don't have real airports, often landing on small dirt strips or clearings in the brush. Think of it as a hub and spoke system for spies and special operators.

"Some of the little ones, like the M-28 go about 120 knots, so it takes a couple of weeks to get them forward where the need to go," said Elton after his speech. "We swap them out for heavy maintenance when we need, but for the most part they go forward and stay there for 80 to 90 to 270 days and we'll swap ‘em out and bring them back."

"Being forward based has certain advantages," said Elrod who pointed out that the little planes are located in "nodes in every geographic combatant command," a referral to the term the U.S. military uses to describe how it divvies up regions of the globe among its battlefield commanders.

AFSOC, along with the rest of the U.S. special operations community, is focusing on growing its permanent overseas presence.

Special Operations Command commander Adm. William McCraven's "vision through SOCOM is to push more to the theaters so we can do more, more staffs, more people, more capability on a rotational as well as a forward presence," said Elton. "We're looking at putting more aircraft in Europe and the Pacific."

Including, apparently, some drones on very short notice.

U.S. Air Force

The Complex

Mystery Munition Adds to Confusion Over Syria’s Chemical Attacks

The world finally agrees that Bashar al-Assad used poison gas against Syrian civilians. Beyond that basic fact, riddles remain. No one is quite sure about exactly what kinds of chemicals his regime used, where precisely the Syrian military has struck, and when. Now, there's another seemingly ill-fitting piece to the confusing jigsaw puzzle. Mysterious rockets found at the scene of some of the alleged gas attacks may be conventional weapons that produce injuries that can resemble those resulting from a chemical attack.

A few weeks ago, Killer Apps displayed this video, titled "Chemical Massacre," showing what appear to be Syrian Republican Guard troops in Damascus firing a rocket in late August that looks incredibly similar to the odd-looking munitions found at the scene of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria over the last year, including those around Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed as many as 1,400 people.

Numerous observers of the weapons used in the Syrian civil war have speculated that the mystery rockets' warheads could easily be filled with nerve agents. Human Rights Watch even went so far as to say there is a chemical weapons variant of the unidentified 330-mm rockets in its report on the Aug. 21 attacks.

The rockets shown in that particular video, however, were likely conventional explosive devices; they were being used in broad daylight while the chemical attacks around Damascus have usually happened at night.

In either case, these rockets strongly resemble an experimental American weapon from the 1970s called the Surface Launch Unit-Fuel Air Explosive or SLUFAE. Fuel-air explosives (FAE) like SLUFAE, often called thermobaric weapons, are among the nastiest conventional munitions out there. These weapons use pressurized gas to create a massive explosion that relies on waves of air for its destructive power rather than using flames and shrapnel to destroy targets.

It might -- might -- be possible to mistake a strike with thermobaric weapons for a chemical attack, especially since thermobaric weapons aren't used very often.

"That's a thought that I've had, and another person that I've talked to who is an expert on chemical and biological warfare has also had that thought," Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who supervised a team destroying chemical warfare agents at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in response to a question about the possibility that people are confusing thermobaric strikes for some of the alleged chemical ones in Syria.

Rofer said that while the Aug. 21 attacks likely involved chemical weapons, some of the earlier strikes thought be by chemical munitions may have been conducted with thermobaric weapons instead.

"At the moment I'm inclined to go along with the intelligence reports . . . that say its chemical weapons but I have to say I wouldn't be surprised if we had somebody come out and say, ‘attack x was thermobaric'," said Rofer. "Frankly, I've had a lot of doubts about attributing a lot of these [incidents] to chemical attacks up until the intelligence reports came out. I really wish they would come out and give some of the evidence they've got because I think they could do that without damaging classified information."

Thermobaric weapons work by expelling a cloud of explosive gas -- sometimes mixed with explosive dust like finely ground aluminum -- from their warheads when they are just above their target, this cloud explodes a split second later, creating a tremendous shockwave of air. The largest thermobaric weapons are sometimes compared to small nuclear bombs.

The blast wave obliterates people close the detonation while crushing and destroying the internal organs of victims who are a little further afield. The weapons are especially useful for attacking buildings, bunkers or armored vehicles with open doors or hatches. The explosions often leave reinforced buildings or armored vehicles intact while killing people inside them. The lack of shrapnel or serious flames means the victims are often found dead with no external signs of injury.

"The effect of an FAE explosion within confined spaces is immense," reads this U.S. intelligence report on how thermobaric weapons produce casualties similar to chemical weapons. "Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe are likely to suffer many internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness."

A former U.N. weapons inspector told Killer Apps in an email that it could be easy to confuse a victim of a thermobaric blast with one suffering from a chemical attack. "I have seen videos of test animals that were killed in this fashion [by thermobaric weapons], they did not look as though they had been involved in a blast - no bleeding, etc," he wrote.

Making matters even more bewildering for observers is the fact that thermobaric weapons don't always explode when fired. When this happens, the highly toxic explosive fuel for the weapons is simply expelled into the atmosphere causing an accidental chemical weapons attack, according to the U.S. intelligence report.

"Injuries and deaths produced by blast effects of fuel-air explosives often are confused with those caused by nerve agents because of the virtual absence of visible physical damage," reads the intelligence report. "Injuries occurring when a fuel and dust-air explosive fails to detonate are true chemical injuries and are not a result of CW agents. Direct contact with these compounds causes irritation, skin corrosion, burns, and allergic reactions, all of which can be confused with chemical weapon injuries."

In fact, ethylene oxide, a colorless gas with a sweet odor, is one of the most common fuels used in thermobaric weapons. People exposed to ethylene oxide suffer a list of symptoms that sound an awful lot like what we've seen in reports of Syrian chemical attacks throughout the past few months -- vomiting, skin burns, eye irritation, nerve damage, seizures, weakness, difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs, and more.

"Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents" reads a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report on fuel-air explosives obtained by Human Rights Watch.

Ethylene oxide and propylene oxide "would not be very good for breathing," quipped Rofer when asked about the effect those particular chemicals would have on humans exposed to them. "We chemists like to understate things like that.

Rofer added that U.S. and European intelligence agencies should release the hard intelligence they have that proves a chemical attack in order to remove "this lingering doubt." (A United Nations report documenting such evidence is due out Monday.)

One way of determining which type of weapons were used would be to look at possible imagery of the rockets landing that might have been collected by American spyplanes or satellites. Chemical weapons don't produce massive explosions whereas thermobaric blasts would be very visible, according to Rofer.

All of this adds to the confusion of how often and how much chemical weaponry Assad has actually used against his own people. Regime forces are accused of using everything from tear gas to nerve agents and even possible combinations of the two since at least January. But there's a possibility that a third type of weapon has been used in some of these attacks -- a thermobaric one.

It's even possible that all three types of arms were used in the horrific Aug. 21 attacks. After all, one eyewitness said that, aftwards, the victims had radically different kinds of wounds.

"The dead bodies -- this is the strange thing -- the dead bodies, there were hundreds. And there were two kinds," opposition activist Razan Zaitouneh said after the strikes. The first continued to have foam come out of their mouths. "Another kind -- blood came out from their mouths and noses."

Perhaps we now have a clue about why that happened.