This dynamic post will provide regular updates regarding the deployment of drones in military operations as new developments occur and as new information becomes available. The entries will place the latest developments in context.
December 1, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
A satellite image from October 3, 2016 shows a Chinese-made CH-4 Rainbow surveillance and strike drone at Zarqa Airport in Jordan. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, offers the first visual confirmation of Chinese-made drones operating in Jordan. It shows a CH-4 taxiing on the single runway at the airfield. The CH-4 is a medium-altitude long-endurance drone made by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. It resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, although it has a slightly shorter wingspan and fuselage than the Reaper. The image confirms long-held suspicions that Jordan is either testing or already operating Chinese drones.
Zarqa Airport as it appears in the October 3 satellite image corresponds to footage from a July 2016 video showing the CH-4 undergoing tests at an undisclosed airport. The video, which was featured in our August update of CH-4s at China’s Zhongwei airport, is a mashup of footage taken at multiple airports. The hangars and other airport infrastructure in the satellite image align with those that are visible in the July video. The July video shows a CH-4, at times armed with air-to-ground missiles, taking off and landing at the airfield. The video accompanied an article that was published in multiple Chinese outlets that reported that an undisclosed country had purchased the CH-4 Rainbow. The article reports that the unnamed buyer was a mountainous country with an average elevation of 1,000 meters that required a drone that could operate in high summer temperatures. Jordan’s average elevation is 812 meters.
(Zarqa Airport footage begins at minute 2:22.)
The satellite image also shows that the airfield has been refurbished in the past year. The runway has been paved and two large new hangars, as well as several administrative buildings, have been added. Construction of a new control tower is underway. Zarqa Airport is located nearby several Jordanian military installations, including King Abdullah II Air Base.
Jordan has long sought to acquire drones from the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration denied Jordan’s request for unarmed Predators XP drones. In March 2015, a group of Republican-led U.S. lawmakers urged the administration to lend Jordan the drones for use against ISIL. Further east, at Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, the U.S. has set up a base from which to fly a number of both Predator (or Gray Eagle) and Reaper drones as part of the counter-ISIL air campaign. Although the acquisition of the CH-4 has not been confirmed by Jordan, the reports in Chinese media of the CH-4 sale, the infrastructure upgrades at Zarqa, and the continued presence of the CH-4 from July to October suggests that Jordan is indeed the latest country in the Middle East to purchase armed Chinese drones.
Sharurah, Saudi Arabia
November 18, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
A satellite image from October 31, 2016 shows that multiple strike drones have been deployed to Sharurah Regional Airport in Najran Province, Saudi Arabia, near the border with Yemen. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, shows three Chinese-made CAIG Wing Loong (also known as Pterodactyl) medium-altitude long-endurance surveillance and strike drones. The image also shows multiple manned aircraft and, as well as new construction to accommodate the increased military presence. The drones likely belong to the Saudi military, although the United Arab Emirates also flies the Wing Loong and is suspected of operating drones from Saudi air bases. The number of Wing Loong drones in the image suggests that the Chinese-made drones are playing a larger role in the Saudi-led air campaign over Yemen than previously believed.
The drones in the satellite image can be distinguished by the narrow fuselage and 45-foot wingspan. The Wing Loong drones are similar in size to the U.S. MQ-1 Predator and are smaller than the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (66-foot-wingspan) and the Chinese CH-4 Rainbow (60-foot-wingspan). The Wing Loong has a V-shaped tail, which can be clearly identified in the satellite image. The image shows that the Saudi military has repaved and expanded the aircraft apron where the Wing Loong drones are parked. Construction is also underway to widen an aircraft taxiway that is parallel to the runway. The new threshold and boundary markings suggest that it could potentially serve as an auxiliary runway to accommodate the extra traffic. Additional aircraft parking aprons have been added on both ends of the taxiway. AH-60 Apache attack helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawks are also reportedly deployed to the base. Adjoining the military portion of the airfield, a host of temporary shelters have been added and four multi-story buildings are under construction. Sharurah Regional Airport is a mixed civil-military facility.
Reports that Saudi Arabia planned to acquire Wing Loong drones go back to April 2014 and as recently as September 2016. A July 2015 satellite image of Jazan Regional Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia appeared to show a single Wing Loong deployed there for operations over Yemen. As of August 2016, however, the aircraft and support equipment have been removed from Jazan. In September 2016, images circulated on social media that appeared to show a downed Wing Loong drone in western Yemen.
— Green lemon (@green_lemonnn) September 26, 2016
November 17, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
A satellite image from October 7, 2016 appears to show the previously undisclosed location of U.S. surveillance drones in Tunisia: Sidi Ahmed-Bizerte Air Base in the northwest of the country. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, follows a report from the Washington Post that the United States deployed drones Tunisia in June 2016. According to the Post, which did not reveal the location of the U.S. drone operations, the unarmed drones fly surveillance missions over ISIL strongholds along the Libyan coast. Although the October 7 satellite image does not show any drones, it does show the ground control stations and satellite communications equipment that are required to operate drones, as well as rows of recently added troop shelters. This suggests that the U.S. drone deployment in Tunisia is at Sidi Ahmed.
The deployment consists of a launch-and-recovery element located on the edge of the tarmac and a bivouac set back slightly from the airfield. The launch-and-recovery element has been established on a newly-paved apron adjoining three permanent aircraft hangars. It includes a satellite communications dish and a ground control station. The bivouac includes 21 small shelter systems, a standard 32.5 x 20-foot tent for accommodating troops, and six medium shelter systems, which are typically used as dining halls, store rooms, or kitchen areas. According to the Post, around 70 personnel have been deployed to support the drone mission in Tunisia. The arrangement of the shelters depicted in the satellite image corresponds to photos published on social media that reportedly show U.S. soldiers and equipment at Sidi Ahmed. The images show a row of shelters and several soldiers.
— MENASTREAM (@MENASTREAM) November 1, 2016
The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2015 that the U.S. was looking for a drone base in a North African country to supplement the drones that already based at Sigonella, Sicily. Drone flights from Sicily were frequently cancelled due to poor weather over Mediterranean. Sidi Ahmed is about as far from Libya as one can get within Tunisia. It’s approximately the same distance to the Libyan border from Sidi Ahmed as it is from Sigonella. Sidi Ahmed is Tunisia’s largest air base and home to the country’s fleet of 12 F-5 fighter aircraft. There are military and civilian airfields that are closer to the Libyan border, but they would require the U.S. to invest in costly security upgrades in order to house drone operations. Sidi Ahmed Air Base is already a restricted facility, and the base is large enough to accommodate the U.S. troops and aircraft.
China: Ningbo and Daishan
October 2, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
Satellite imagery from July 2016 suggests that some Chinese military drones appear to be operating out of an additional airfield on the East China Sea coast. The image, taken on July 20, 2016 and accessed using Google Earth, reveals that mobile ground control stations and support equipment required to operate drones have been recently added to Ningbo airbase, a PLAN base in the city of Ningbo. The equipment at Ningbo matches the equipment that had been located at other Chinese military bases where drones have been deployed in the past, including nearby Daishan Island. In fact, some of the equipment has been placed on a recently-paved apron at the center of Ningbo airfield in nearly exactly the same manner that it was deployed at Daishan. This, combined with what appears to be a camouflaged command center, suggests that at least some drones are operating out of Ningbo.
The July image of Ningbo does not, however, show any actual drones. But this would not be the first time that drones have flown out of Ningbo. A satellite image of Ningbo airbase from May 30, 2011 shows three ASN-209 Silver Hawk tactical surveillance drones on mobile launchers. A second image, this one from December 2012, shows another ASN-209 being towed from the runway. Additional images accessible on TerraServer place ASN-209 drones at Ningbo until December 2013. Ningbo is home to China’s East Sea Fleet, the oldest of China’s three main maritime commands. The East Sea Fleet is responsible for the majority of the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. In the Office of Naval Intelligence’s 2015 assessment of the PLAN, it argues that “UAVs will probably become one of the PLA(N)’s most valuable ISR assets.” One of the earliest indications of PLAN drone operations was in June 2012, when a Japanese P-3 maritime patrol aircraft took a photo of what appeared to be an ASN-209 flying above a PLAN frigate during exercises in the east Philippine Sea.
Two types of drones could potentially be deployed to Ningbo. The the ASN-209 Silver Hawk is a medium-range tactical reconnaissance drone that the Chinese Navy has used since at least 2011. With a wingspan of around 7.5 meters, the drones in the satellite images matches the characteristics of the ASN-209. The second drone, the Harbin BZK-005, is a high-altitude long-endurance surveillance drone made by the Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics and Harbin Aircraft Industry Co., Ltd. It was first unveiled at the 2006 Zhuhai International Airshow.
For at least the past three years, these drones have actively engaged in surveilling China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Both ASN-209s and BZK-005s have been based at an ex-reserve PLAN airfield on Daishan Island. From Daishan, the drones were able to conduct missions over China’s maritime borders and, in particular, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Historical satellite imagery accessed on Google Earth places the drones at Daishan in September 2013, following renovations to the airfield that took place between 2010 and 2013. Satellite imagery from early 2016 shows that the airbase at Daishan is undergoing a second transformation. The runway is being re-paved and a new aircraft taxiway has been added. Drone operations at Daishan are likely to resume after the construction is completed.
Possible equipment at Ningbo:
Indian Air Force Western Air Command
September 26, 2016
On September 10, 2016, the Indian Air Force’s Western Air Command announced that drones were to surveil all air bases under its control, an area of operations that runs from Delhi north to Kashmir. The announcement comes in the midst some of the worst violence in the Kashmir region in years; around 90 people have died in the past 10 weeks as a result of clashes between protesters and the Indian military. The Western Air Command’s headquarters is located in Delhi and, with its territory largely lodged between Pakistan and China, it is considered to be the most sensitive and important of the five Air Force Air Commands. Within the Western Air Command, there are already several bases where drones are already deployed, and have been for some time.
Satellite imagery Google Earth reveals that drones have been deployed to Jammu Airport and Awantipur Air Force Station in Jammu and Kashmir province, and Bhatinda Air Force Station in Punjab province. The imagery, which was accessed on Google Earth, illustrates for the first time the scale of drone operations engaged in by the Indian military in the region. The drones in the images appear to match the dimensions the Israel Aerospace Industries Searcher Mk II and Israel Aerospace Industries Heron. The Searcher, a tactical reconnaissance drone, is flown by the both the Indian Navy and Air Force. The Heron is a medium-reconnaissance high-altitude drone for surveillance and reconnaissance that is flown by the Indian Air Force and Navy. At Jammu Airport, both Searchers and Herons are pictured beginning in February 2006. At Awantipur Air Force Station, an early Heron UAV is pictured in a satellite image from 2006, although one has not been seen there since then. At Bhatinda, south of Kashmir in Punjab province, a Heron drone is pictured in an image from May 25, 2016.
Of the three bases, however, Jammu appears to be the most significant. The satellite imagery shows regular and active drone operations at the base involving both Heron and Searcher drones. Jammu is situated 14 kilometers from the border with Pakistan, on the southern slopes of the Sivalik hills. From this position, drones are able to fly north along the Line of Control, the border that divides Kashmir and Pakistan, or into Kashmir itself. A medium-sized drone like the Searcher, which has a range of around 200 kilometers, cover large swaths of this territory.
When it comes to drones in the news, India can be overlooked in comparison to China’s burgeoning drone inventory and U.S. drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan. However, India has both a drone industry and a growing number of military drones. It also has a history of actively using drones to patrol its borders; in June 2002, Pakistani media reported that an Israeli-made Searcher drone was shot down near Lahore. In 2004, India entered into negotiations with Israel to purchase Heron drones, according to a report by IHS Jane’s. The deal to acquire the Herons was finalized in September 2005. Since then, India has made additional purchases of drones from Israel and has looked to invest more in its own drone manufacturers. It has also sought to enter into negotiations to purchase the next generation of Predator drones from the U.S.
For more on the Indian military’s drones, see the Center for a New American Security’s “A Perspective on India.”
September 13, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
As of this month, three Hermes 900 drones are supporting United Nations peacekeeping missions in Mali. In August, IHS Jane’s 360 reported that defense contractor Thales UK has been operating one Hermes 900 drone out of Timbuktu since at least July and that two more aircraft would join the deployment in September. The Hermes 900 is a medium-altitude long-endurance surveillance drone made by Elbit Systems, an Israeli company. It is similar to the U.S. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone. According to IHS Jane’s, Thales signed a three-year agreement with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in December 2015. Unlike the military drones that are already operating in Mali, the Thales drones will be used to provide aerial surveillance for civilian operations such as humanitarian convoys.
Satellite imagery shows that the Thales deployment is located on the western end of the airport, where a group of concrete aprons and taxiways have recently been refurbished. A DigitalGlobe image from May 7, 2016 (accessed via Google Earth) shows the construction of three hangars to support the three Hermes 900 aircraft. More recent satellite imagery sourced from TerraServer (August) shows a Hermes 900 aircraft parked on the apron. Historical satellite imagery of the airport shows that the UN mission added aircraft taxiways and aprons to the Timbuktu airport 2015, enabling the deployment of additional aircraft such as the Hermes.
The Hermes drones join an airspace above Mali that is already busy with unmanned aircraft of various sizes and origins. The 2015 annual report of the UN’s Aviation Safety Section, Department of Field Support stated that there 21 military unmanned systems with MINUSMA, although it did not specify the type of aircraft. The report also highlighted several safety shortfalls concerning drone operations as part of UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and outlined the Section’s plan to carry out safety trainings. In August, the UN issued a request for information for vendors willing to provide drone safety training sessions to MINUSMA aviation staff.
Sweden, Germany, France, and the U.S operate drones over Mali. The Swedish Army flies the AAI Shadow (known as Örnen, or “Eagle”) and AeroVironment Puma (Korpen, “Raven”) from Timbuktu. The UN built a designated runway for the Shadow just south of Camp Noble, the UN base at Timbuktu Airport. The German military deployed the tactical reconnaissance LUNA drones to Gao, Mali in June 2016. Germany plans to deploy Heron drones leased from Israel Aerospace Industries and flown by Airbus contractors to Gao, although the schedule could be delayed due to recent legal battles over the contract. In neighboring Niger, France has deployed Reaper and Harfang drones since 2013 mainly for operations over Mali. The U.S. has deployed Predators and Reaper drones to Niamey, Niger beginning in 2013 and is building a new drone base in Agadez, a city in northern Niger.
August 22, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
The CH-4 Rainbow is a Chinese-made medium-altitude long-endurance surveillance and strike drone. It is designed with capabilities and characteristics similar to the U.S. MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper drones. Several countries besides China reportedly operate the CH-4, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. According to a July 22, 2016 article that appeared in numerous Chinese media outlets, a new country may soon begin flying the CH-4. The article explains how China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the makers of the CH line of UAVs, delivered the CH-4 to an unidentified “mountainous” country for testing, where it flew in high-temperature summer conditions and reached a max altitude of 7460 meters.
Accompanying the July 22 article is a video that featured footage of recent CH-4 tests. It is unclear whether any of the footage is from tests that took place in the “mountainous” country. When combined with satellite imagery, the video reveals that several CH-4 drones are based at a civilian airport outside of Zhongwei, a city located in Ningxia province and on the edges of the Tengger Desert and Inner Mongolia. The video and satellite imagery both show both aircraft, ground control stations and satellite communications stationed at Zhongwei. It also includes aerial footage from drones of nearby landmarks such as industrial plants and bridges. Zhongwei Shapotou Airport is 15 miles south of where the CH-4 carried out a live-fire missile test in mid-May. Historical satellite imagery, which was accessed on Google Earth, shows that the drones have been based at Zhongwei since at least July 2015. The video includes footage from tests that take place at other locations besides Zhongwei, as well as footage from the missile test in mid-May.
Chabelley Airfield, Djibouti
August 15, 2016
By Dan Gettinger
A satellite image from July 1, 2016 reveals changes at the Chabelley Airfield U.S. drone base in Djibouti. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, shows a base buzzing with activity. Several construction projects are either underway or have been recently completed.
The latest construction is evidence that the U.S. military is readying Chabelley Airfield for continued drone operations in the Horn of Africa. When it was first set up in 2013, Chabelley was only meant to be operational for two years. In March 2014, however, AFRICOM reclassified Chabelley as an Enduring Support Location with a life expectancy of up to 10 years. Around the same time, construction began on an expansion of housing facilities at Chabelley, the first physical signs of the transition to a longer-term deployment.
In contrast to Pakistan, where the number of drone strikes has plummeted, U.S. drone operations in Yemen and Somalia—which are likely staged from Chabelley—have remained relatively steady, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. In fact, there have already been more drone strikes in Somalia in 2016 than in 2015, and twice as many operations overall. Other nations besides the United States have also deployed drones to Chabelley: between September 2014 and February 2015, the Italian Air Force deployed MQ-1 Predator drones to Chabelley to support counter-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa.
The satellite image from July 1, 2016 shows that a project to add additional aircraft aprons and hangars has been completed. Historical satellite imagery reveals that construction began to expand the northeast corner of the base in November of 2014. The first two additional hangars were added in the spring of 2015 and the July 1 image reveals that work has finished on the final two hangars. In addition to the drone hangars, communications equipment and ground control stations for launching the drones have been set up adjacent to the aprons. The finished construction brings the total number of hangars currently in use to 12.
According to the Fiscal Year 2017 military construction budget, the Air Force has proposed spending $6.9 million on paving the parking aprons and taxiways with asphalt or concrete. Currently, the base is constructed using AM-2 metal matting, 12-feet-long aluminum panels that are used to rapidly build aircraft parking pads and taxiways. The AM-2 matting, which the Air Force has been using since the 1960s, is not intended for permanent use, and it can damage the aircraft if it is not maintained.
The FY17 budget proposal includes $3.6 million to pave the 3.4 mile gravel access road between Camp Lemonnier, the much larger U.S. military base that adjoins Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, and Chabelley Airfield. Currently, the road is is subject to protruding boulders, edge washout, and potholes. Construction on internal access roads linking parts of Chabelley Airfield has already begun. On April 30, 2016, the Air Force issued a $22,272 contract to MGT Djibouti SARL for gravel for roads at Chabelley Airfield. The satellite image shows a walled staging area for construction vehicles near the entrance to the airfield.
The July 1 image shows a construction vehicle working on what will eventually be a 7,720-meter-long perimeter boundary surrounding the base. Currently, the main areas of the base are individually bounded by walls and a road is patrolled by security vehicles, but the base as a whole lacks a protective boundary. In a June 25, 2015 letter of notification to Rep. Charles W. Dent, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Committee on Appropriations, DoD comptroller Michael McCord determined that the $7.6 million project to build the wall was necessary to meet DoD requirements for physical security. It will be constructed out of four layers of concertina wire, six-foot metal fence posts and will include pedestrian and vehicle entrances, defensive fighting positions, and an upgraded entry control point. On September 29, 2015, the U.S. Navy awarded ECC-MEZZ LLC, a California-based construction company, a $6.96 million contract to construct the perimeter boundary. The July 1 image shows that part of an existing road in the northeastern corner of the base has been rerouted to make way for the construction of the boundary. According to military construction status reports, this project is expected to be completed in March 2017.
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