WASHINGTON – The steel-gray U.S. Air Force Predator drone plunged from the sky, shattering on mountainous terrain near the Iraq-Turkey border. For Kurdish guerrillas hiding nearby, it was an unexpected gift from the propaganda gods.
Fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) filmed the charred wreckage Sept. 18 and uploaded a video on YouTube. A narrator bragged unconvincingly that the group had shot down the drone. But for anyone who might doubt that the flying robot was really American, the video zoomed in on mangled parts stamped in English and bearing the label of the manufacturer, San Diego-based General Atomics.
For a brief moment, the crash drew back the curtain on Operation Nomad Shadow, a secretive American military surveillance program. Since November 2011, the U.S. Air Force has been flying unarmed drones from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation, in an attempt to suppress a long-simmering regional conflict.
The camera-equipped Predators hover above the country’s rugged border with Iraq and beam high-resolution imagery to the Turkish armed forces, helping them pursue PKK rebels as they slip back and forth across the mountains.
As the administration of President Barack Obama 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 robust surveillance networks far beyond traditional, declared combat zones.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has amassed more than 400 Predators, Reapers, Hunters, Gray Eagles and other high-altitude drones that have revolutionized counterterrorism operations. Some of the unmanned aircraft will return home with American troops when they leave Afghanistan. But many will be redeployed to fresh frontiers, where they will spy from the sky on a melange of armed groups, drug runners, pirates and other targets that worry U.S. officials.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. 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 American 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-Qaida fighters and rebels in northern Mali. The Pentagon has also set up drone bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Seychelles. Even so, the commander of American forces in Africa told Congress in February that he needed a fifteenfold 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.
In South and Central America, U.S. military commanders have long 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 American drones is Colombia. Last year, Colombian armed forces killed 32 “high-value narcoterrorists” after the U.S. military helped pinpoint the targets’ whereabouts with manned surveillance aircraft and other equipment, according to Jose Ruiz, a Southern Command spokesman.
The American military has occasionally operated small drones — 1.2-meter-long ScanEagles, which are launched by a catapult — 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.
In the fall of 2011, four disassembled Predator drones arrived in crates at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey’s southern Anatolia region. The drones came from Iraq, where for the previous four years they had been devoted to surveilling that country’s northern mountains. Along with manned U.S. aircraft, the Predators tracked the movements of PKK fighters, sharing video feeds and other intelligence with the Turkish armed forces.
The Kurdish rebel group has long fought to create an autonomous enclave in Turkey, launching cross-border attacks from its hideouts in northern Iraq. Turkey has responded with airstrikes and artillery attacks but has also sent ground troops over the Iraqi border, further destabilizing an already volatile area.
The Turkish and U.S. governments both classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
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.
Neither side has been eager to publicize the arrangement. The Obama administration has imposed a broad cone of silence on its drone programs worldwide.
The Turkish government has acknowledged the presence of Predators on its territory, but the robotic planes are a sensitive subject. A global survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of Turks disapprove of any international campaign of drone attacks against extremists.