US halts drone flights from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti


The US military has stopped flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from its main African base in Djibouti after a string of crashes, moving operations to a remote desert airstrip.

Camp Lemonnier, next to Djibouti’s international airport, is the only official American military base on the African continent and is an important hub for stationing special forces and manned and unmanned military aircraft operating in the region. In late 2010, the US dispatched eight MQ-1B Predators to Djibouti and turned Camp Lemonnier into a full-time UAV base. These UAVs have been used to strike targets in Yemen and Somalia.

However, the operation of UAVs from Camp Lemonnier has been challenged by a number of accidents, with five incidents involving General Atomics MQ-1 Predators since the beginning of 2011, according to Agence France Presse (AFP).

As a result, Djiboutian officials asked the American military to halt UAV flights from Camp Lemonnier. “There was a concern over what would happen if a MQ-1 obstructed a runway, and that it would have a significant impact on commercial air operations,” an anonymous official told Agence France Presse last week, confirming a Washington Post story.

Now, the US military has moved its UAV fleet in Djibouti to Chabelley Airfield, around 10 kilometres from the capital Djibouti. It flew its last UAV flight from Camp Lemonnier earlier this month.

According to a document from the US Congress seen by the Washington Post, some $13 million will be spent on upgrading the Chabelley airfield in support of UAV flights.

All other US military aircraft, such as manned surveillance aircraft, transport aircraft, helicopters and fighter jets, (RQ/MQ-1s, MQ-9s, U-28As, F-1Es and C-130s) will continue to fly out of Camp Lemonnier.

US officials said operations would not be affected by the UAV move. Up to 16 takeoffs and landings used to take place at Camp Lemonnier every day.

The US earlier suspended UAV operations in the Seychelles after two Reapers crashed at the international airport.

Camp Lemonnier is home to some 3 000 US personnel and, due to its importance to the US military, is undergoing a series of upgrades, with $808 million planned to be spent on improving infrastructure at the site.

On September 24, the US Department of Defence awarded BL Harbert International a $150 million contract for the construction of a forward operating site at Camp Lemonnier over an area of 20 acres. Eleven new buildings will include a hangar, air operations centre, armoury, operations centre, warehouse, training facility, vehicle maintenance shop etc. An aircraft parking apron will also be built. Work is expected to conclude by August 2016.

The US DoD also announced other contracts, including a $36 million contract to Caddell Construction Co for the design and construction of a combined headquarters building and joint operations centre at the base.

ITSI Gilbane Co was awarded a $16.6 million contract for power plant upgrades at the base, with work concluding by October next year.

In addition, earlier this month Kellogg, Brown & Root Services was awarded a $14.2 million contract for “base operation support services” at both Camp Lemonnier and Manda Bay, Kenya. This involves general running and support of the base. The contract runs to June 2017.

The US military also flies UAVs from Arba Minch in Ethiopia and Niamey in Niger.