Secretive US spyplane destroyed in Kenyan air base attack


Amongst the six aircraft destroyed during al Shabaab’s attack on Camp Simba at the weekend was a highly modified Bombardier STAMP surveillance aircraft, which was apparently being used to track down terrorists in the region.

On Sunday 5 January, al Shabaab attacked the Camp Simba base at the Manda Bay airfield in northeast Kenya, destroying five fixed and rotary wing aircraft and damaging another. Three Americans (one US military servicemember and two contractors) as well as several attackers were killed. US Africa Command said all six destroyed or damaged aircraft belonged to private contractors.

One of the aircraft destroyed was a highly modified Bombardier Dash 8 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft operated by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Under its SOCOM Tactical Airborne Multi-Sensor Platforms (STAMP) programme it operates two of the Dash 8s and three King Air B300 aircraft.

According to The Drive, SOCOM has one registered Dash 8 (N8200L, with the service since September 2017), which was previously owned by Dynamic Aviation, which has been contracted to fly modified Dash 8s on behalf of the US Army. These have been used for surveillance flights over Libya.

While flying under previous US Army contracts (Desert Owl and Saturn Arch programmes), the Dash 8s were configured with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and a sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras. They were also fitted with a hyperspectral camera and satellite data link. Considering all the extra ‘lumps and bumps’ on the aircraft, other equipment, such as signals intelligence equipment, may have been installed.

The US Army also acquired several Dynamic Aviation Dash 8s to convert into RO-6A surveillance aircraft with cameras, radars and signal intelligence systems, amongst others.

It appears that a contractor King Air was also destroyed in Kenya. The identities of the other damaged/destroyed aircraft have not yet been confirmed.

Other aircraft that have been known to use the Manda Bay airfield include Cessna 208 Caravans, U-28s (PC-12), C-146s (Dornier 328), CN235s, UH-60s and MH-6s and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles.

The US military has been operating from Camp Simba since at least 2004, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). By 2012, the base had been considerably upgraded and the runway extended. The base hosts on average 200–250 personnel, and reportedly more than 500 during surges. In addition to using the airstrip as a launch point for aerial reconnaissance over neighbouring Somalia, American forces have used the main base as a training base for both Kenyan and Somali forces.

In 2017, the US Air Force took responsibility for Camp Simba/Manda Bay, and established the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron to oversee activities at Manda Bay.

Elsewhere in Kenya, a 2010 US Government Accountability Office report indicated that the US was maintaining a forward operating base in Isiolo, Kenya. A 2015 Africa Command statement identified two ‘cooperative security locations’, one at Kenya’s Laikipia Air Base and one at an airfield at Wajir in north-eastern Kenya—these are host nation facilities with few or no permanent US military personnel but with prepositioned equipment and logistics supplies, which are used for training and are available for contingency operations. It was also reported in 2015 that the US military had access to facilities at an airport and a seaport in Mombasa.

Al Shabaab’s attack on Camp Simba comes as the US drastically increased the number of air strikes against the organisation in Somalia – the United States conducted 63 airstrikes against militants in Somalia in 2019. Al Shabaab aims to overthrow the central government in Somalia, where US troops have been deployed over the last several years to train the Somali army to counter the militants.