Archive for February 19th, 2009

[Image said to be from 2006]

A friend passed along an article yesterday from the UK Times, which reported that the United States “was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan as early as 2006, according to two images of the base taken from Google Earth.” The pictures, first obtained by The News, show an unidentified flying strip in Balochistan — bearing the coordinates of 27 degrees 51 minutes North, 65 degrees and 10 minutes East — “proof that Pakistani ground was being used,” reported the news agency. The Times noted that they also obtained copies of the images [which are no longer on the Google Earth website] and confirmed that the coordinates match up with the Shamsi base, “also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta.”

In the first image, believed to be from 2006, there are three drones visible, [see above]. However, although The News identified the drones as Global Hawks, which are used only for reconnaissance, The Times cited Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane’s Defense Weekly, who said the drones’ wingspan appears to be 48-50 ft. He noted, “The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As…hey are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).” In fact, according to a report last month in Jane’s World Air Forces, “Pakistan’s only drones are Italian Galileo Falcos, which were delivered in 2007.”

[Current image of the airbase]

The second image, [believed to be from 2009, see above] “undoubtedly shows the same airstrip as the image from 2006.” According to The Times, “There are no visible drones, but it does show that several new buildings and other structures have been erected since 2006, including what appears to be a hangar large enough to fit three drones. Perimeter defenses — apparently made from the same blast-proof barriers used at U.S. and Nato bases in Afghanistan — have also been set up around the hangar.”

The Times UK noted in its coverage:

U.S. special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the U.S. cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several “high-value” targets as well as many civilians. The Google Earth image now suggests that the U.S. began launching Predators from Shamsi — built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips — at least three years ago.

This explanation seems to fall in line with U.S. Senator Feinstein‘s comments last week [thanks for the link Heather], when the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that unmanned Predator aircraft operating in Pakistan are flown from an air base in that country, suggesting a much deeper U.S.-Pakistan relationship than has previously been disclosed. In a CS Monitor blog yesterday, entitled, “Oops! Pakistan condemns US’s drone attacks (but also hosts them),” Issam Ahmed noted the Google Earth revelation is likely to infuriate opposition groups, as well as embarrass the Pakistani government. That is probably an understatement given how politically sensitive the rise in drone attacks has been. So far, the U.S. embassy has declined to comment on the images, while Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, admitted on Tuesday that U.S. forces were using Shamsi, but only for logistics.

The developments are shocking, no question. But it also leads me to ponder the power of technology today. While it may allow for a greater transparency of information [which can be good or bad depending on who you talk to], it seems to also play an increasingly important role in conflict. Not long ago, I read that Google Earth was playing an unlikely role in Iraq, helping people survive sectarian violence in Baghdad. Several websites were reportedly set up using maps of various neighborhoods so Baghdadis could avoid running into death squads. The technology has also been used for ulterior purposes. Iraqi insurgents, for instance, were known to use the technology to plan their attacks. The Indian government also claimed the Mumbai attackers had used Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets.

Here’s another technology-related note: in a unique study published by the MIT International Review, geographers found that simple facts, publicly available satellite imagery and fundamental principles of geography place Osama bin Laden in one of three buildings in the northwest Pakistan town of Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal region near the border with Afghanistan. John Agnew, a UCLA geography professor and co-author of the study noted, “We believe our work represents the first scientific approach to establishing bin Laden’s current location. The methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained by the U.S. intelligence community.”

Somehow I think that if Al Qaeda monitors the media, [which they do] making such revelations public may not be the best way to capture OBL. Just a thought.

**Teeth Maestro also blogged about the Google Earth imagery, click here.

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