VIEWED FROM HIGH ABOVE, Chabelley Airfield is little more than a gray smudge in a tan wasteland. Drop lower and its incongruous features start coming into focus. In the sun-bleached badlands of the tiny impoverished nation of Djibouti — where unemployment hovers at a staggering 60 percent and the per capita gross domestic product is about $3,100 — sits a hive of high-priced, high-tech American hardware.
Satellite imagery tells part of the story. A few years ago, this isolated spot resembled little more than an orphaned strip of tarmac sitting in the middle of this desolate desert. Look closely today, however, and you’ll notice what seems to be a collection of tan clamshell hangars, satellite dishes, and distinctive, thin, gunmetal gray forms — robot planes with wide wingspans.
Unbeknownst to most Americans and without any apparent public announcement, the U.S. has recently taken steps to transform this tiny, out-of-the-way outpost into an “enduring” base, a key hub for its secret war, run by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in Africa and the Middle East. The military is tight-lipped about Chabelley, failing to mention its existence in its public list of overseas bases and refusing even to acknowledge questions about it — let alone offer answers. Official documents, satellite imagery, and expert opinion indicate, however, that Chabelley is now essential to secret drone operations throughout the region.
Tim Brown, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and expert on analyzing satellite imagery, notes that Chabelley Airfield allows U.S. drones to cover Yemen, southwest Saudi Arabia, a large swath of Somalia, and parts of Ethiopia and southern Egypt.
“This base is now very important because it’s a major hub for most drone operations in northwest Africa,” he said. “It’s vital. … We can’t afford to lose it.”