US continues with UAV operations in Djibouti


Despite reportedly considering operations elsewhere, the US military continues to focus on one site for launching drones in Djibouti, maintaining a squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (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. In 2010, the US first positioned eight General Atomics 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. Satellite imagery confirms that these upgrades have taken place. During the summer of 2013, a tarmac extension adjacent to the runway, to the north, with seven hangars and service buildings, was added.

Recent images show that the base may now host a compound with up to 32 buildings, likely housing mechanics and maintenance personnel for the aircraft. Four tanker trucks also appear to be visible in satellite imagery.

At least three of the UAVs are likely to be MQ-1B Predators from the first group of aircraft dispatched to Djibouti. However, three other aircraft are suspected to be MQ-9 Reapers, based on their 20 meter wingspan, greater than the wingspan of a standard Predator. Although Reapers and Predators have comparable range, the Reaper is capable of transporting a larger weapons payload.

Although reports in 2013 suggested that UAVs would also operate out of Niamey airport in Niger and Arba Minch in Kenya, satellite images collected in 2015 by CNES have not shown UAVs visible outside of hangars. The status of these possible additional sites is unclear, but the availability of Reapers in Africa seems to indicate a move toward heavily armed, high-altitude missions. Although Reapers have only about half the endurance of Predators, they are capable of operating at double the altitude of a Predator—up to 15 000 meters—and can carry weapons on seven hardpoints instead of the two typical of Predators.