A War Waged From German Soil: US Ramstein Base Key in Drone Attacks
The US Air Force base in Ramstein is a central and indispensible element in Barack Obama’s controversial use of drones in the war against terror. New documents are creating pressure for both Washington and the German government. By SPIEGEL Staff
Knowledge is power. Ignorance often means impotence. But sometimes ignorance can be comfortable, if it protects from entanglements, conflicts and trouble. This even applies to the German chancellor.
In the heart of Germany’s Palatinate region — just a few kilometers from the city of Kaiserslautern — the United States maintains its largest military base on foreign soil. The base is best known as a hub for American troops making their way to the Middle East.But another strategic task of the headquarters of the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) remained a national secret for years. Even the German government claimed to know nothing when, two years ago, the base became the subject of suspicion. It was alleged that Ramstein is also an important center in President Barack Obama’s drone war against Islamist terror. A former pilot claimed that the data for all drone deployments is routed through the military base.
The report caused quite a stir. Were the deadly precision weapons — which can eliminate al-Qaida terrorists, Taliban fighters or members of the Shabaab militia on the Horn of Africa with apparent clinical precision — guided toward their targets via German soil?
No, the German government said at the time, that’s not quite correct. But even today, the government says it still has “no reliable information” about what exactly is going on. The United States has refused to provide it.
But the Americans’ secretiveness also comes in handy for Berlin. Not knowing anything officially prevents the government from having to take any action.
Berlin’s comfortable position, though, could soon be a thing of the past. Classified documents that have been viewed by SPIEGEL and The Intercept provide the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the architecture of Obama’s “war on terror.”
The documents, which originate from US intelligence sources and are classified as “top secret,” date from July 2012. A diagram shows how the US government structures the deployment of drones. Other documents provide significant insight into how operations in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen are carried out. And they show that a central — and controversial — element of this warfare is played out in Germany.
The graphics show that Ramstein is involved in virtually every Air Force drone attack. Even if the pilots are sitting at Air Force bases in Nevada, Arizona or Missouri, and even if the targets are located on the Horn of Africa or the Arab Peninsula, USAFE headquarters at Ramstein is almost always involved.
“Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do,” says a US intelligence source, who is knowledgable about the US government’s drone program. He declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. “Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now.”
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the new evidence could be explosive. The air base in southwestern Germany may resemble a piece of Americana with its churches, movie theaters, baseball diamonds and park-like golf course, but it is not an extra-territorial area like the US Embassy in Berlin. The German government has contractually guaranteed the United States use of the property, which is surrounded by barbed wire, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing there that violates German law.
In the past, whenever media reports emerged presenting evidence of violations of the law at Ramstein; whenever critical members of parliament demanded answers about Germany’s contribution to these airborne executions: The German government always maintained that these were mere assertions. They were, Berlin insisted, countered by American claims that the US was respecting German law.
The veracity of such claims now ought to be reviewed. Just like during the NSA scandal, the German officials are facing the question as to whether massive legal violations may be taking place on German soil.
From Ramstein into Space
The intelligence service diagrams reveal that there are two places in the world right now that are indispensable in the drone war: Ramstein and Creech, a hermetically sealed town in the Nevada desert. The Air Force base, one hour northwest of Las Vegas by car, serves as a relay hub for 10 Air Force bases in different US states. State-of-the-art fiber-optic cables guarantee the rapid transmission of data, which is also sent to the National Security Agency and to Ramstein in Germany.
The trans-Atlantic connection is vital, because every time a drone pilot in Creech begins his mission, he first logs into the Air and Space Operation Center (AOC) in Ramstein. Last year, former pilot Brandon Bryant reported that he used his personnel number to log in to the system in Germany and that he had to enter the identification number of the drone he was charged with flying in order to connect with the aircraft.
At AOC, in a beige-colored, low-rise building, more than 500 US soldiers monitor the air space over Europe and Africa. During the past decade, the Pentagon has invested a considerable amount of money expanding Ramstein for its analysis and hub functions. A dozen enormous satellite dishes installed in a field next to the AOC complex ensure that the reconnaissance experts here don’t miss a single soldier, truck or command post.
Once a connection has been established between the drone pilots in Nevada and AOC in Ramstein, the commands are rerouted from the German base to a satellite. From space they are then transmitted to the drones.
The operation of each unmanned aircraft is directed by a team of specialists. The pilot is responsible for the altitude, direction and speed, while others take care of the infrared and video cameras, in addition to the laser system used for target acquisition. The so-called latency — the time it takes for a signal from the pilot’s joystick to reach the drone — is decisive for precise control.
And this is where Ramstein’s geographical location comes into play. No satellite circling the Earth has the ability to send a signal from Pakistan to the United States directly. The distance is too far and the curvature of the earth too great. But pulling a second relay satellite into the data flow would increase the latency time and make swift responses and precise maneuvers impossible because the video images from the drone would no longer be delivered to the US in real-time. In other words, without assistance from Ramstein, the pilots would more or less be flying blind.
“Ramstein is the focal point for drone communications,” says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College near New York. The communications infrastructure “is more important to the drone operations than the weapons a drone carries.”
The secret documents that prove this are even more explosive in that they contradict the German government’s position in an additional point as well. According to the documents, the drones are capable of geolocating mobile phones for their deadly attacks. In the past, the Germans would provide the mobile phone numbers of suspects to the Americans as part of their efforts to fight terror — in Afghanistan, for example. The German government justified the practice by claiming that a mobile phone number by itself was not enough to enable a precision air strike.
But the secret documents show that drones equipped with a special geolocating device are able to use mobile phone numbers to locate people precisely enough to make an air strike possible. The system is called “Gilgamesh” and it is screwed onto the bottom side of a drone’s wing. It simulates a mobile phone tower for suspicious numbers. If a target phone logs on to Gilgamesh instead of a standard cell tower, its precise location can be determined. The drone then transfers the data back to Ramstein via satellite.
The air base, which has attracted some 50,000 US citizens to live in the region, already played a prominent role in the very early stages of the US drone war. In his book “Predator,” American author Richard Whittle wrote that, during the summer of 2000, the most important drone flights to that date were commanded out of Ramstein. In the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the as-yet unarmed drones were used to find the camps and whereabouts of his terrorist clan in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Under the greatest secrecy, a satellite station was transported to Ramstein and positioned at the end of the air base runway. They succeeded in tracking bin Laden near Kandahar during the seventh drone flight. Whittle claims that the White House did not inform the German government about the operation.
When a version of the Predator armed with “Hellfire” missiles was ready for deployment only a year later, the Americans presumed they would continue to control the aircraft from Germany. The location had proven itself, not least because the infrastructure could be easily disguised on the giant property.
But Pentagon legal experts expressed concern about dispatching the deadly drones from Ramstein without the knowledge of the German government. The lawyers cited the legal obligations laid out in the US Forces Agreement and warned of possible diplomatic and legal consequences. The Americans didn’t want to risk a veto from the left-leaning government coalition of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats and the Green Party or, worse yet, a situation in which the plans might somehow become public. So they began searching for alternatives, ultimately adopting an American technical expert’s idea to physically separate the pilots from the satellite connections.
Since then, the Americans have felt they were legally safe, but many experts view the situation differently.
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Categories: Europe, United States
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