The US was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in
Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan as early as 2006, according
to an image of the base from Google Earth.
The image - that is no longer on the site but which was obtained by The
News, Pakistan's English language daily newspaper - shows what appear to
be three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of the runway. The Times
also obtained a copy of the image, whose co-ordinates confirm that it is the
Shamsi airfield, also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the
Pakistani city of Quetta.
An investigation by The Times yesterday revealed that the CIA was
secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack
al-Qaeda and Taleban militants around Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
US 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 US
cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last
year, allegedly killing several "high-value" targets as well as many
The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from
Shamsi - built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips - at least three years ago.
The advantage of Shamsi is that it provides a discreet launchpad within
minutes of Quetta - a known Taleban staging post - as well as Taleban
infiltration routes into Afghanistan and potential militant targets farther
Google Earth's current image of Shamsi - about 100 miles south of the Afghan
border and 100 miles east of the Iranian one - undoubtedly shows the same
airstrip as the image from 2006.
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 defences - apparently
made from the same blast-proof barriers used at US and Nato bases in
Afghanistan - have also been set up around the hangar.
A compound on the other side of the runway appears to have sufficient housing
for several dozen people, as well as neatly tended lawns. Three military
aviation experts shown the image said that the aircraft appeared to be MQ1
Predator unmanned aerial vehicles - the model used by the CIA to observe and
strike militants on the Afghan border.
The MQ1 Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and can fly for
up to 454 miles, at speed of up to 135mph, and at altitudes of up to
25,000ft, according to the US Air Force website www.af.mil
The News reported that the drones were Global Hawks - which are
generally used only for reconnaissance, flying for up to 36 hours, at more
than 400mph and an altitude of up to 60,000ft. Damian Kemp, an aviation
editor with Jane's Defence Weekly, said that the three drones in the
image appeared to have wingspans of 48-50ft.
"The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible
that these are Predator-As," he said. "They are certainly not RQ-4A Global
Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in)."
Pakistan's only drones are Italian Galileo Falcos, which were delivered in
2007, according to a report in last month's Jane's World Air Forces.
A military spokesman at the US Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment on the
images - or the revelations in The Times yesterday.
Major-General Athar Abbas, Pakistan's chief military spokesman, was not
immediately available for comment. He admitted on Tuesday that US forces
were using Shamsi, but only for logistics.
He also said that the Americans were using another air base in the city of
Jacobabad for logistics and military operations. Pakistan gave the US
permission to use Shamsi, Jacobabad and two other bases - Pasni and Dalbadin
- for the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
The image of the US drones at Shamsi highlights the extraordinary power - and
potential security risks - of Google Earth.
Several governments have asked it to remove or blur images of sensitive
locations such as military bases, nuclear reactors and government buildings.
Some have also accused the company of helping terrorists, as in 2007, when
its images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi
Last year India said that the militants who attacked Mumbai in November had
used Google Earth to familiarise themselves with their targets. Google
Street View, which offers ground-level, 360-degree views, also ran into
controversy last year when the Pentagon asked it to remove some online
images of military bases in America.