“We don’t have remotely piloted aircraft in many places other than East Africa, but we could,” said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “If there was a need to do so and those assets were available, I’m certain we could get the access and the overflight [permission] that is necessary to do that.”
Most of the spy flights in Africa, however, take off the old-fashioned way — with pilots in the cockpit. The conventional aircraft hold two big advantages over drones: They are cheaper to operate and far less likely to draw attention because they are so similar to the planes used throughout Africa.
The bulk of the U.S. surveillance fleet is composed of single-engine Pilatus PC-12s, small passenger and cargo utility planes manufactured in Switzerland. The aircraft are not equipped with weapons. They often do not bear military markings or government insignia.
The Pentagon began acquiring the planes in 2005 to fly commandos into territory where the military wanted to maintain a clandestine presence. The Air Force variant of the aircraft is known as the U-28A. The Air Force Special Operations Command has about 21 of the planes in its inventory.
In February, a U-28A crashed as it was returning to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Four airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command were killed. It was the first reported fatal incident involving a U-28A since the military began deploying the aircraft six years ago.
Air Force officials said that the crash was an accident and that they are investigating the cause. Military officials declined to answer questions about the flight’s mission.
Because of its strategic location on the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier is a hub for spy flights in the region. It is about 500 miles from southern Somalia, an area largely controlled by the al-Shabab militia. Lemonnier is even closer — less than 100 miles — to Yemen, where another al-Qaeda franchise has expanded its influence and plotted attacks against the United States.
Elsewhere in Africa, the U.S. military is relying on private contractors to provide and operate PC-12 spy planes in the search for Kony, the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for mutilating victims, committing mass rape and enslaving children as soldiers.