Threats “From the South” Prompt U.S. to Base Drones in Greece for the First Time

MQ-9 Reapers may support operations in Libya and elsewhere in Africa.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on a ramp in Afghanistan Sept. 31. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained at deployed locations, while being remotely operated by pilots and sensor operators at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.  (Courtesy photo)
An MQ-9 Reaper on a ramp in Afghanistan on Sept. 31, 2015. Photo: U.S. Air Force

As part of its ongoing expansion of operations in and around Africa, the U.S. military has recently begun operating drones from a Greek airfield.

MQ-9 Reapers, the more advanced replacement for the venerable Predator drone, deployed last month to Larissa air base in eastern Greece near the Aegean Sea “on a temporary basis as they transition to a different location,” according to Auburn Davis, the chief of media operations for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, who noted that the remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, are unarmed and engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions known as ISR.

“This is the first time that ISR capabilities have been temporarily deployed to Greece,” Davis told The Intercept. Due to “operational security considerations,” the Air Force declined to release details about the missions for which they’ll be used beyond referencing “foreign policy security objectives in the region, specifically to address threats emanating from the south.” The Reaper drones are ordinarily based in Africa, according to Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon.

“The U.S. has previously deployed drones or drone operations support personnel to Italy and Tunisia to support operations over Libya. This deployment to Larissa, Greece, is also most probably in support of U.S. objectives in Libya, where the U.S. has for several years used drones to mitigate the threats posed by Islamic militant groups and to support local partners,” Dan Gettinger, co-founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told The Intercept. The U.S. has conducted at least nine airstrikes in Libya since President Donald Trump took office.

The U.S. has also built an extensive network of airfields and bases across the northern tier of Africa, flying drones out of Djibouti, Cameroon, Tunisia, and Niger in recent years. The U.S. is currently expanding an air base in Agadez, Niger for more extensive operations by MQ-9 Reapers. As The Intercept first reported in 2016, Niger was the “only country in NW Africa willing to allow basing of MQ-9s,” according to formerly secret U.S. military documents. The documents went on to note: “President expressed willingness to support armed RPAs.” The temporary nature of the deployment “could be related to the fact that the opening of the U.S. drone base at Agadez, Niger, has faced delays,” Gettinger told The Intercept.

In its hunter-killer capacity, the Reaper can be armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, laser-guided bombs, and joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMs: conventional “dumb” bombs that have been converted into guided “smart” bombs. In ISR operations, such as those to be launched from Greece, the MQ-9 can fly for up to 14 hours at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, according to Air Force and Pentagon documents.

The deployment of U.S. drones to Greece was first reported by the To Vima, a local newspaper. According to their sources, Greece and the United States are relying on either a 1992 military cooperation agreement, “or one of 100 other bilateral agreements, as the legal basis for the stationing of the drones, without requiring approval from the Greek parliament.” The MQ-9 Reapers, according to Davis, “only transit through Greece on routes that have been approved by the Greece government.”

The tilt toward the Hellenic Republic comes at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Greece’s neighbor and rival Turkey following the 2016 coup attempt by members of the Turkish military.

Earlier this year, top Greek military officials met with Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, to discuss “further strengthening of our air force-to-air force relationship,” according to Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Greece. Just last week, while praising Greece’s military and emphasizing its partnership with U.S. armed forces, Pyatt said, “It’s been a path-breaking year in our military relationship.”

Larissa air base now joins other European localesm including Miroslawiec air base in Poland, Sigonella air base in Italy, and Incirlik air base in Turkey, among others, that host MQ-9 Reapers.

Top photo: An MQ-9 Reaper on a ramp in Afghanistan on Sept. 31, 2015.

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