Well done to Danger Room for finding the needle in the haystack. On Thursday, the Wired.com blog posted this article showing an insanely remote military airstrip being built in the Saudi Arabian desert on the border with Yemen.
Looking at the satellite imagery, the base is almost certainly the secret drone base the United States is using to conduct UAV strikes in Yemen; it's got those beige "clamshell" tent-hangars that are a ubiquitous feature at expeditionary drone bases around the world. It's also smack dab in the middle of nothing. I mean nothing (that's why they call it Rub al-Khali -- the Empty Quarter). The crew at Wired remembered to look in Bing maps instead of Google maps. (We should have thought of this. After all, it was Bing maps, not Google, that had photos of the North Carolina mockup of Osama bin Laden's compound that the Navy SEALs used to rehearse for the May 2011 raid to kill the al Qaeda leader.)
Guess, what? That Saudi facility is not alone. Last night, we found another possible drone base in the Yemeni desert relatively close to the Saudi site. The Yemeni airstrip (shown above) looks relatively new and is of a very similar layout to the Saudi base that's being built. One thing that's missing, however, is those clamshell tents. In fact, the airstrip and the substantial military-looking compound a few miles to the northeast that's connected to the runway via a dirt road look almost abandoned.
Here's one more nugget we found. Below is a screenshot from Wikimapia showing the site of the Saudi base before it was built. Notice how it's just a few tents and a twin engine turboprop plane tucked amid the dunes of one of the most remote and forbidding locations on Earth. Pretty impressive. These finds have to make you wonder where else there are hidden airfields like this literally sprouting out of the wilderness.
This week, Tehran may have done a little bit better. This
to YouTube on Wednesday, shows what is claimed to be camera footage taken from the
RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that Iran claims to have captured in 2011.
When someone first sent me this video I was very skeptical.
Then I took a closer look and became a lot less so. Let's go through it
First, notice the very opening shots. You can see what
appears to be the nose landing gear drop. It seems to drop toward the side of
plane, just like the RQ-170's nose gear appears to do based on photos taken of
taxiing around Kandahar air base in Afghanistan. Just as interesting is the
fact that the camera on this aircraft is positioned behind a rather complex
nose landing gear assembly -- a layout that matches grainy Web images of the
Sentinel that show what looks like a compartment that could contain a camera
positioned on the bottom of the airplane, just behind the front landing gear.
This unusual layout isn't shared by the U.S.'s most common
attack drones; the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Unlike what we've seen of the
RQ-170, both of those planes have sensor balls (yes, they're really called
that) capable of rotating 360 degrees that hang just in front of their (rather
primitive) nose landing gear.
After a few flying shots, you see footage taking as the
aircraft taxis at what looks an awful lot like an American air base, right down
to C-130s parked on the ramp. In fact, at about 48 seconds in, you can see what looks like an MQ-9 Reaper drone
(or possibly two) parked in an enclosed ramp -- a drone pen if you will --
complete with a walled perimeter and those tent hangars that are seen at
expeditionary drone bases around the world.
At 56-57 seconds, you see the camera quickly swivel to the
right before bumping up against what appears to be the limits of its pan. As noted
above, most drone sensor balls would be able to rotate 360 degrees, unless they
were housed in a forward-looking compartment designed to maintain the
aircraft's stealthy shape. (It could also be the forward edge of the rear
landing gear doors, as seen in photos of the Sentinel taxiing.)
The camera then swivels back to the nose gear as the plane
taxis forward into the drone pen. The fact that this aircraft is taxiing into a
drone pen with U.S. drones nearby supports the notion that this is not just
footage from a random aircraft with a sensor ball, but a U.S. drone. One
thing that makes me a little bit skeptical is a mysterious strut that looks
like it might attach to the landing gear (you can see this strut at the 25
second mark). Other than that, it looks like the Iranians may well have
accessed data from the RQ-170 they got their hands on. Something U.S. officials said would be very, very difficult. For this reason, you'd think that Iranian officials would have made a bigger deal of the video.
If you've seen this footage before and can debunk it, sound
off in the comments.
Update: As several people have pointed out, the very end of the video shows what might be footage of an actual strike mission. As far as we know, the RQ-170 carries no weapons. Here's commenter mrjefferson good take on this:
At 1:34 there is a one-second image of a ground explosion in what appears to be a residential area in a city or town. Some of the flight data is visible at the top, but much of it has been redacted. Drone experts may be able to verify the type of drone from this image alone.
It seems to me that the image of the explosion, possibly due to a weapon launched by another drone, would not have occurred in Iran and be captured on video by the RQ-170. Moreover, given the ostensible issue of assessing the Iranian nuclear effort, watching an explosion of a house doesn't make sense unless the video shows the assassination of someone associated with that program.
One far-fetched but possible explanation is that this is indeed RQ-170 video, but is instead taken from a mission over Afghanistan or Pakistan that has somehow gotten into the hands of the Iranians and is being falsely advertised as being from the RQ-170 in Iranian custody.
Ultimately the final image may not be part of the original video. Nonetheless it is enigmatic and merits further analysis.
Another commenter points out that most of this footage appears to be taken from a relatively low resolution camera that may be used to help the drone pilots control the craft while it's taking off, landing and taxiing. Keep in mind that drones are controlle on takeoff and landing by pilots at the base that the UAV is flying out of. Once airborne, control of the drone is handed off to operators who are sometimes located thousands of miles away. This second group of pilots fly the actual missions and collect information from the drones advanced sensors that's supposed to be broadcastover very well encrypted data links. This means that there's the possibility that the footage we're seeing was intercepted by Iranians from a U.S. drone's (possibly an RQ-170) while it was transmitting relatively useless -- perishable -- unincrypted videos to its local controllers. If that's the case, it shows that Iran may not have accessed the truly sensitve data aboard the captured Sentinel.
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