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US halting UAV flights from Djibouti?

Chabelly airport.The United States has inactivated its only General Atomics MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron in Africa, raising doubts over the ongoing use of UAVs from its deployments in Djibouti.

On November 23 the US Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing announced that the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron located at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, was inactivated on 7 October “after years of honourable service to the nation”.

Maj Kori, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group chief of operations analysis and reconstructions, during the inactivation ceremony said that Lt. Col. Dennis, commander of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, “engaged enemies of the United States from Chabelley Field, Republic of Djibouti from Nov. 20, 2014 to Oct. 8, 2015.”

“Under the leadership of Lt. Col. Dennis the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron executed combat flight operations in support of three combatant commanders as the only MQ-1 launch and recovery site in Africa,” the US Air Force said.

“The remotely piloted aircraft flown out of Chabelley accumulated over 24 000 hours of armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and were responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high valued individuals,” Kori said.

Up until October it appears that the United States maintained a squadron of UAVs from its unacknowledged air base at Chabelley Airport, 12 kilometres southwest of the capital Djibouti City.

A French CNES satellite shows the remote desert airstrip in March 2015 with six UAVs on the tarmac while Google satellite imagery from August this year showed three MQ-9 Reapers on the tarmac there. In 2010, the US first positioned eight MQ-1B Predators at Camp Lemmonier, a few kilometres southeast of Djibouti City at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Djibouti has become a centre for UAV reconnaissance and strike missions over Somalia and Yemen.

Camp Lemmonier hosted close to 3 000 US troops in 2013 and remains a major hub for manned transport and strike aircraft. However, a series of UAV crashes halted operations out of the airport in August 2013. At the time, the Washington Post reported that Chabelley Airport would receive up to $13 million of upgrades from the US military. During the summer of 2013, a tarmac extension adjacent to the runway, to the north, with seven hangars and service buildings, was added, followed by further buildings. Satellite imagery earlier this year showed what appeared to be three Predators and three MQ-9 Reapers. Although Reapers and Predators have comparable range, the Reaper is capable of transporting a larger weapons payload.

Although the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron has been inactivated, it is not clear if other units are still flying UAVs from Chabelley or another unit has been set up to fly UAVs elsewhere in the region.

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