US drone base in Ethiopia targets al Qaeda in Somalia, Yemen
The Air Force has been secretly flying armed Reaper drones on counterterrorism missions from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethiopia as part of a rapidly expanding U.S.-led proxy war against an al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, U.S. military officials said.
The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.
Mindful of the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in which two U.S. military helicopters were shot down in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and 18 Americans killed, the Obama administration has sought to avoid deploying troops to the country.
As a result, the United States has relied on lethal drone attacks, a burgeoning CIA presence in Mogadishu and small-scale missions carried out by U.S. Special Forces. In addition, the United States has increased its funding for and training of African peacekeeping forces in Somalia that fight al-Shabab.
The Washington Post reported last month that the Obama administration is building a constellation of secret drone bases in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, including one site in Ethiopia. The location of the Ethiopian base and the fact that it became operational this year, however, have not been previously disclosed. Some bases in the region also have been used to carry out operations against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
The Air Force confirmed Thursday that drone operations are underway at the Arba Minch airport. Master Sgt. James Fisher, a spokesman for the 17th Air Force, which oversees operations in Africa, said that an unspecified number of Air Force personnel are working at the Ethiopian airfield “to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programs.”
The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethiopia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”
Last month, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethiopian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.
“That’s the government’s position,” said Tesfaye Yilma, the head of public diplomacy for the embassy. “We don’t entertain foreign military bases in Ethiopia.”
...I think there have been recent attacks in Somalia against al Shabab in support of the Kenyan offensive into Somalia. Because of the nature of the attacks I suspect they were conducted by the better armed Reaper attack aircraft. The drones present a real problem for the enemy because of their persistence capabilities. They can hang out over a battle space for up to 20 hours making it difficult for an enemy relying on raids to move to cantact without being discovered and engaged.