This satellite image was taken of Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport in September of this year. It shows spec ops C-130s and CV-22s, Navy P-3s and Super Hornets, a lone King Air and one conspicuously bright white plane. It's a WB-57 and technically it belongs to NASA, but it's not there to map the atmosphere or the stars.
Every few months, some media outlet comes out with a big story proposing that strange deployments of U.S. fighters, special operations, and now NASA WB-57 aircraft are underway to a shadowy base in East Africa. This is roughly the same as publishing a headline about Saddam Hussein being pulled from a spider hole north of Baghdad. It's old news.
The U.S. outpost often referred to in these pieces is located in the small African state of Djibouti and it officially called Camp Lemonnier. Operated primarily by the U.S. Navy, this now sprawling military installation is the home of Combined Joint Task Force Horn Of Africa and it has grown steadily since its founding in 2003. Before that, the task force was actually based for over a year aboard the USS Mount Whitney, one of America's two command Blue Ridge class ships, anchored off the coast of Djibouti.
French forces occupy the northwest portion of the airport, with Transalls, Pumas and Mirage 2000s being a constant fixture. The southern part of the airport was at one time a French Foreign Legion outpost, but became an abandoned and dilapidated wreck by the time the Twin Towers fell. Today, that doomed French Foreign Legion base is the sprawling Camp Lemonnier.
It took an astonishing amount of work over a relatively short period of time to get the base ready for U.S. forces, which was seen as an essential strategic move following the attacks of 9/11 and the resulting jump start of the Global War On Terror. Camp Lemonnier's primary mission is to give the U.S. a presence in eastern Africa and to support three key operational areas: mine clearing, humanitarian aid conveyance and counter-terrorism operations.
For almost half a decade, the seldom discussed U.S. African outpost remained quite quaint, being just 100 acres in size. Then, in 2007, its tent cities gave way to a semi-permanent housing community made up mainly of containerized living units, along with an enlarged aircraft apron and many creature comforts to support a much larger mission. In all, the base grew during this expansion to over 500 acres in size and reached about halfway down the airport's runway in length.
With another massive expansion occurring between 2011 and 2012, the base would now span the entire length of the airport's runway, with another large aircraft dispersal appearing on the eastern edge of the base and a dedicated unmanned aircraft facility being constructed adjacent to the center of the runway. Although row upon row of containerized living units still dominated the base's 'city-scape,' more permanent structures and improvements were added, which signifies the long-term intent that America's strategic planners have for the one austere base.
For nearly a decade before this latest massive expansion, U.S. transports, drones and special operations aircraft packed a cramped dispersal at the southwest side of the airport's grounds. The sight of MC-130s, UC-25s, MH-53 Pave Lows and various other special operations aircraft, along with Navy P-3s being used to hunt for pirates and support special operations missions, packed close together on the relatively tiny expanse of asphalt was totally common. With its most recent expansion, Camp Lemonnier, with its three distinct aircraft aprons (with a huge 4th dispersal being added now on the far eastern side of the base) is beginning to look a lot like the giant U.S. outposts found throughout the middle east and Afghanistan.
With that background in mind, let's get back to the constantly claimed 'mystery' of the hodgepodge of military and exotic aircraft parked at the eastern end of this relatively small airfield.
The concept is pretty simple: When fighting an intense counter-terror war, pirates and extremist African militias all at the same time, things like MQ-9 Reapers, CV-22B Ospreys and MC-130 transport/refuellers are just the tools of the trade. The F-15Es, F-16Cs or F/A-18 Super Hornets are also a nice touch considering that special forces could be operating in virtually any nation's backyard at a moments notice. Manned close air support, which is much more dynamic than what a Reaper or Predator can provide with their soda-straw like field of view, can mean the difference between life and death for operators on the ground. Additionally, some of these nations where special operations occur have fighter aircraft of their own that could pop up at any time during a surprise raid. Even in a friendly country, an unannounced penetration of their airspace by special operations helicopters or fixed wing aircraft can lead to alert fighters launching after them, so it is nice to have something overhead that can provide counter-air support and deterrence if need be.
Finally, having a fighter contingent forward deployed to the fairly austere base providers commanders with the ability to strike a time sensitive target fast. Unmanned aircraft are incredibly useful for their persistence and endurance, but they are slow aircraft. Launching a Predator from Camp Lemonnier to go put a weapon on target near Yemen's capital of Sana can result in over a two-hour transit time. An F-15E Strike Eagle can make that same trip in a matter of a couple dozen minutes if need be.
In the September image that was published recently on Google Earth, a NASA WB-57F high-altitude research and mapping aircraft can be seen sitting on the base's eastern ramp that is usually associated with tactical fighter aircraft and aircraft that may carry live weaponry. This resulted in a huge slew of articles questioning what NASA would be doing with one of their most capable aircraft parked next to a bunch of hard hitting jet fighters and spec-ops aircraft at a shadowy special forces base. Once again, there is no mystery here whatsoever. NASA's expanding WB-57F fleet can accomplish a similar but more payload flexible mission as the U-2 Dragon Lady, not quite reaching its 70,000 foot perch, but still being able to cruise far above normal air traffic at almost 60,000 feet.
Although these antique jets are flown by NASA, they really are a fleet for hire as they receive little money from the space and aeronautical agency to operate. Because the WB-57F can be rapidly reconfigured with so many different experimental payloads in its plethora of under-belly senor bays, wing pods and nose cone configurations, and the jet's high-altitude and long endurance performance gives it incredible line of sight and persistence, they offer a unique and relatively affordable service for both the scientific community and the military alike. The truth is that at least one WB-57 has been flying mainly for the DoD for nearly a decade, and not just during exercises and test missions at home, but all around the world, including in combat theaters.
BACN equipped WB-57 owned by NASA lands at Nellis after a Red Flag mission:
NASA's Canberras are most known for carrying atmospheric sensors, long-range stabilized video telescopes and mapping payloads. Yet the military contract WB-57s most notably carry a military data-link and communication networking package that can fuse many types of disparate military data-link's information into a common 'picture.' It can then rebroadcast that picture back out as one god's eye view of the battlefield in all the various 'languages' and waveforms used by aircraft and weapon systems around the battlespace. This means that an A-10 Warthog using a Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL) can share its 'sensor picture' with Super Hornet using the more prevalent Link 16/MIDS waveform and data terminals and via-versa. Basically, the WB-57F, when configured with this system, known as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), becomes a high-flying, super-computing, data-fusion and rebroadcasting gateway.
BACN, in its various configurations, can also work to relay communications and streaming videos over vast distances, around the world via satellite link in many cases. This beyond-line-of-sight communications capability is essential for special forces operating in mountainous terrain, or any terrain for that matter where communication can be hampered by shadowing from large structures or topography. It also creates an 'active net' over the battlefield that reaches all the way down to the ground, whereas data links working without a gateway facilitator can lose contact at low altitude with one another data link terminal as they lose line of sight of one another. Seeing as America's special operations aircraft are tailored to penetrate enemy airspace at very low altitudes, having a communications node up like BACN may be a huge factor in a mission's success or failure as it can supply clear communications and relay threat data in real time.
Today, the BACN mission has been taken up by some older Global Hawks, known as EB-4s, as well as the very capable but lower flying Bombardier Global Express-based E-10 aircraft. Lesser versions of this technology also exist on roll-on, roll-off paletted systems that can be placed on KC-135s and other aircraft, although BACN is a much more capable, agile and features a higher capacity for bandwidth and range.
Some people will question why NASA would be providing such a militarized capability with its civilian aircraft. The truth is that NASA and the DoD are not distant acquaintances and have long-held a very tight relationship. Modern proof of this reality is that one of NASA's WB-57s has been flying out of Nellis AFB during large force employment exercises (LPE), such as Red Flag, on and off for the better part of a decade. Its job being to providing an active network over the battlefield from the ground up, while also working as a data-fusion gateway for the various players' unique data-link technologies. That is not to say that this is their only job, secondary capabilities could be added, and even the WB-57's extremely powerful nose-mounted camera could record maneuvering aircraft or ground operations at very long distances.
Since the NASA WB-57 team is all about rapidly adapting and flying elaborate and experimental payloads for its customers, the aircraft are a dream for weapons makers. New sensors can be quickly tested and deployed, including radar reconnaissance payloads which can be used to track moving vehicles on roads, small boats on waterways, or even the movements of large groups of people over open terrain. Additionally, a WB-57 can use multi-spectral mapping equipment to survey a large area in search of a militant camp, or to create up to date maps for a special operations raid. To put it bluntly, the utility for such an aircraft in the region and for Joint Task Force Horn Of Africa is vast.
So why not just use a U-2? Well, U-2s need a larger support footprint to operate from austere airfields, they draw a lot of attention, and they are not used in the same way the WB-57s have been in the recent past, as rapidly re-configurable high-flying sensor trucks. The U-2s are super versatile, but accomplish their missions using proven systems that have been highly vetted. The WB-57s represent a more experimental "high-speed, low-drag" developmental and operational concept.
The nearly dream-like location of Camp Lemonnier has made it America's go-to base of operations for some high profile military activities in recent years, including the 2012 rescue of aid workers Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thistedat and, in conjunction with naval assets, the recent failed hostage rescue attempt that was aimed at freeing photojournalist Luke Somers who was being held at a Al Qaeda compound in Yemen.
That operation in particular used the very same aircraft we see in the top image of this article, CV-22s, F/A-18 Super Hornets and probably some MC-130s used for contingency aerial refueling as well. The white NASA WB-57F that is also seen on the ramp next to its gray military cousins, most likely provided BACN connectivity and communications, data and video relay services for commanders around the world during the mission. The base's Predator and Reaper remotely piloted vehicles were undoubtedly also involved with the mission in some fashion.
So really, there is no big mystery when it comes to the hodgepodge of American tactical combat aircraft and NASA's high flying WB-57 operating out of the Horn of Africa. It is just America going about its decade plus long series of operations in Eastern Africa and the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Sneak attacks on Somalian warlords, Harrier strikes on Al Quaeda operatives in Yemen and as last week's unsuccessful Navy SEAL hostage rescue operation are among a growing number of missions that remind us that these operations are often of a very high risk and high priority nature. Thus they demand a full bevy of assets in order to obtain a decent chance of success. Sometimes those assets include special operations Ospreys, fighter aircraft, drones, and in some cases, even NASA WB-57s.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com