The Air Force’s Drone Base in a Box

The Air Force’s Drone Base in a Box

Drone bases, they can pop up anywhere nowadays. The U.S. Air Force’s special operations command now has mini bases for drones that can be packed in a cargo plane and transported anywhere in the world, launching unmanned missions within four-hours of arrival at their destination.

A typical base includes two partially dismantled MQ-1 Predator drones, plus the Hellfire missiles and fuel the planes need to fly and shoot. The base also has two tents: one to shelter the drones and another to house the bank of computers that serves as the drones’ cockpit. (That second tent also comes with a bit of extremely Spartan living space for the crews and aircraft mechanics.) All told, 18 cargo pallets and 32 people constitute the base in a box that Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton, Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) chief of requirements, described as a "rapid reaction fleet."

"After we unload this capability wherever we’re at, four hours later we have a flying, armed [drone]," said Elton during a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual conference just outside of Washington. And that gives special operators the "speed so that we can respond to certain crises."

Drones have, of course, become a central component to U.S. military operations worldwide. But they’re especially important on missions to hunt and kill militants in remote corners of the world. That’s when the drones’ ability to conduct 24/7 surveillance and to strike from a distance come in especially handy.

Hence the base-in-a-box. The command has deployed the tiny bases twice since 2012, according to Elton, who showed a picture one of the aircraft taxiing along a plywood ramp at an undisclosed "international airport" in a dusty corner of the world.

"I won’t get into specifics on where we went, but we had something happen and we needed ISR so we launched on very short notice and we set up in another country to support an operation there," said Elton, describing a six week-long deployment for the drones.

AFSOC provides the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones used by the U.S. special operations community.

While the command only has the ability today to deploy its MQ-1 Predators in a hurry, it is trying to develop a way to pack up its fleet of larger MQ-9 Reapers in "the next couple of years," Elton said.

This comes as AFSOC is working to station its fleet of several dozen small, civilian-looking propeller planes at remote airstrips in every corner of the globe.

"We’ve got aircraft that, for the most part, stay forward and we rotate through our crews and maintainers," said Elton.

These planes, often painted in civilian-looking livery, are used to move U.S. military and intelligence operatives to small airports around the developing world without attracting the attention that would come with the arrival of a large U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

AFSOC uses twin-engine, Dornier 328 propeller planes to get operatives to little regional airfields across a place like Africa, for example. It then uses even smaller M-28 Skytrucks to bring operators to places in the countryside that don’t have real airports, often landing on small dirt strips or clearings in the brush. Think of it as a hub and spoke system for spies and special operators.

"Some of the little ones, like the M-28 go about 120 knots, so it takes a couple of weeks to get them forward where the need to go," said Elton after his speech. "We swap them out for heavy maintenance when we need, but for the most part they go forward and stay there for 80 to 90 to 270 days and we’ll swap ‘em out and bring them back."

"Being forward based has certain advantages," said Elrod who pointed out that the little planes are located in "nodes in every geographic combatant command," a referral to the term the U.S. military uses to describe how it divvies up regions of the globe among its battlefield commanders.

AFSOC, along with the rest of the U.S. special operations community, is focusing on growing its permanent overseas presence.

Special Operations Command commander Adm. William McCraven’s "vision through SOCOM is to push more to the theaters so we can do more, more staffs, more people, more capability on a rotational as well as a forward presence," said Elton. "We’re looking at putting more aircraft in Europe and the Pacific."

Including, apparently, some drones on very short notice.