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September 25, 2013

US Military Relocates Drone Fleet From Djibouti Base

by Luis Ramirez

The Pentagon says it is moving its fleet of drones off Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti - the only U.S. military base in Africa. The change comes as U.S. officials adjust their overall strategy for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.  

U.S. Defense Department officials say the decision follows a request by Djibouti's government, which voiced safety concerns following several recent drone crashes. Camp Lemonnier sits on the edge of Djibouti's international airport, and the unmanned aerial vehicles were taking off and landing from the same runway used by commercial aircraft, prompting concerns by Djibouti government officials.

The drones now are operating from an air strip at a remote location, also in Djibouti. Pentagon officials say they have not reduced operations in any way.

The decision to move the drones highlights the adjustments the Pentagon is making in its drone strategy, as it increases its dependence on unmanned aircraft to keep an eye on militant groups that are operating in eastern Africa.  

​​These groups include al-Shabab, which gained attention this week with an attack at a shopping mall in Kenya.

Using drones has been effective for the United States in its war on militants by allowing U.S. forces to efficiently and inexpensively strike targets and collect intelligence without putting U.S. soldiers on the ground.  

Downside of UAVs

Some observers say the extended use of drones has created a liability for the United States, however, in terms of public perception in countries where they are deployed.  

George Mason University Public Policy Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin said unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] have a record of crashing more often than manned aircraft, and they are extremely risky to use in places where the U.S. military does not control the air space.

“I do not think that anybody would argue against, in an active war zone, the usefulness of having unarmed capabilities like that to keep our soldiers from harm. But the problem is that UAVs have been used very extensively in places that are not active war zones, and here is where I think there is a lot to worry about,” said Cronin.

One concern among critics is the unpopularity of U.S. drones among people in the countries in which they operate could fuel anti-American sentiment and actually bolster militant groups.

Observers say the possibility of a U.S. drone causing a commercial plane to crash is not a risk the U.S. military can afford to take.