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Drones shift to spying frontier

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The steel-gray Air Force Predator drone plunged from the sky, shattering on mountainous terrain near the border between Iraq and Turkey.

For Kurdish guerrillas hiding nearby, it was an unexpected gift from the propaganda gods.

Fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, filmed the charred wreckage on Sept. 18 and posted 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 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 military surveill-ance program. Since November 2011, the Air Force has been flying unarmed drones from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in an attempt to suppress a long-simmering regional conflict. The camera-equipped Predators hover above the 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 Obama administration dials back the number of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the 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.

During 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 troops when they leave Afghanistan. But many of the drones will redeploy to fresh frontiers, where they will spy on a melange of armed groups, drug runners, pirates and targets that worry officials.

Elsewhere 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 Predator drones that edged close to Iranian airspace.

In Africa, the 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 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 spokeswoman 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, 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 Southern Command, said in March.

One possible destination for more drones is Colombia. Last year, Colombian armed forces killed 32 “high-value narco-terrorists” after the military helped pinpoint the targets' whereabouts with manned surveillance aircraft and other equipment, according to Jose Ruiz, a Southern Command spokesman.

The military has occasionally operated small drones — 4-foot-long ScanEagles, which are launched by a catapult — in Colombia. But with larger drones such as Predators and Reapers, 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 Incirlik Air Base in southern Anatolia, a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation.

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 aircraft, the Predators tracked the movements of PKK fighters, sharing video feeds and other intelligence with the Turkish armed forces.

The Kurdish group has long fought to establish an autonomous enclave in Turkey, triggering cross-border attacks from its hideouts in northern Iraq. Turkey has responded with airstrikes and artillery attacks and has sent ground troops into Iraq, further destabilizing a volatile area.

Neither side has been eager to publicize the arrangement.

The Obama administration has imposed a broad cone of silence on its drone programs worldwide. Pentagon officials declined to grant interview requests about Operation Nomad Shadow.

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