U.S. revises, expands drone use

Devices will spy more beyond combat zones

An MQ-9 Reaper, with laser-guided munitions and Hellfire missiles, soars over Afghanistan.The Pentagon has gathered more than 400 drones in a decade.
An MQ-9 Reaper, with laser-guided munitions and Hellfire missiles, soars over Afghanistan.The Pentagon has gathered more than 400 drones in a decade.

WASHINGTON — As the Obama Administration dials back the number of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the U.S. military is shifting its huge fleet of unmanned aircraft to other hot spots around the world.

This next phase of drone warfare is focused more on spying than killing and will extend the Pentagon’s surveillance networks far beyond traditional, declared combat zones.

In the last decade, the Pentagon has amassed more than 400 high-altitude drones that have revolutionized counterterrorism operations.

Some of the unmanned aircraft will return home with U.S. troops when they leave Afghanistan. But many of the drones will redeploy to fresh frontiers, where they will spy on armed groups, drug runners, pirates, and other targets that worry U.S. officials.

In the Middle East, the Air Force has drone hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to conduct reconnaissance over the Persian Gulf.

Twice since November, Iran has scrambled fighter jets to approach or fire on U.S. Predator drones that edged close to Iranian airspace.

In Africa, the U.S. Air Force began flying unarmed drones over the Sahara five months ago to track al-Qaeda fighters and rebels in northern Mali.

The Pentagon also has set up drone bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Seychelles.

Even so, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa told Congress in February that he needed a 15-fold increase in surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence-gathering on the continent.

In an April speech, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Pentagon is planning for the first time to send Reaper drones — a bigger, faster version of the Predator — to parts of Asia other than Afghanistan. He did not give details.

A Defense Department spokesman said the military “hasn’t made any final decisions yet” but is “committed to increasing” its surveillance in Asia and the Pacific.

In South and Central America, U.S. military commanders have pined for drones to aid counternarcotics operations.

“Surveillance drones could really help us out and really take the heat and wear and tear off of some of our manned aviation assets,” Marine Gen. John Kelly, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said in March.

One possible destination for more U.S. drones is Colombia.

Last year, Colombian armed forces killed 32 “high-value narco-terrorists” after the U.S. military helped pinpoint the targets’ whereabouts with manned surveillance aircraft and other equipment, said Jose Ruiz, a Southern Command spokesman.

The U.S. military has occasionally operated small drones in Colombia.

But with larger drones such as Predators and Reapers, U.S. forces could greatly expand the range and duration of their airborne searches for drug smugglers.

One of the more recent areas of drone coverage is Turkey.

In the fall of 2011, four unassembled Predator drones arrived in crates at Incirlik Air Base in southern Anatolia, a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation.

Along with manned U.S. aircraft, the Predators tracked the movements of fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, sharing video feeds and other intelligence with the Turkish armed forces.

The Turkish and U.S. governments classify the PKK as a terrorist group.

Turkey’s leaders had feared that U.S. cooperation against the PKK would wither after the Americans left Iraq. So they invited them to re-base the drones on Turkish soil and continue the spying mission from there.

The drones occupy a relatively tiny corner of the sprawling base at Incirlik, according to interviews with other officials and public documents.

The operation is staffed by about three dozen personnel from the U.S. Air Force’s 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron and private contractor Battlespace Flight Services.

While in Turkish airspace, the drones cannot spy and must turn off their high-tech cameras and sensors, according to rules set by the Turkish government.