The US now has the go-ahead to launch drone strikes from Italian soil, according to recent reports. This news comes just days after a rash of almost 50 US airstrikes pounded the hell out of a bunch of Islamic State targets, including training camps in Libya.
It probably won't come as a huge shock that there's a connection here. But the fact that the US has been pestering the Italians for more than a year about this, and the fact that the airstrikes come shortly after Italy appears to have approved the launch of US drone strikes, is a bit curious.
To start, the Italians didn't give a blanket approval for armed drone strikes to be launched. The approval covers only US forces stationed at Sigonella, on the island of Sicily, and the US still needs to get permission for each strike on a case-by-case basis. But going from "Absolutely no, never" to "Convince me" means something.
The favored US drone for blowing crap up is the MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper has a one-way range of somewhere around 3,500 miles, which is quite a long haul. However, the one-way range and the combat range are two entirely different things. First off, combat range means you have to get there and fly back. So, immediately, we can cut max one-way range in half if we don't want the drone running out of fuel on the way back.
As a super rough rule of thumb, the combat range of an aircraft is about one-third the one-way max range. Add in the weight of fuel and weapons, and we're looking at more or less 1,000 miles of combat range.
In the vast catalog of things that military planners like to bitch about, distance has been a perennial favorite for thousands of years. Usually there's too much distance; once in a blue moon, there isn't enough. But one of the many natural resources with which Africa is so richly endowed is a huge, huge surplus of extra distance.
Now, the US has launched drone strikes out of the UK and Djibouti at various points. There's also a base at Rota, Spain, but it's unclear if they launch any drone strikes from there. Rota is 1,200 miles from Libya, while the UK is more than 1,500 miles away, and Djibouti nearly 2,000 — well beyond the likely combat range of an armed Reaper.
Meanwhile, there's a string of bases across Africa, south of the Saharan desert, where the US is conducting a variety of drone operations against IS folks and other various armed jerks. But those bases are also 1,000 miles or more from the northern coast of Libya (which is where all the interesting stuff is). So scratch that, too.
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The normal way to extend the range of airpower is aerial refueling. That's been a staple of US power projection for decades. However, despite the way that they're sometimes depicted, drones are not particularly agile or maneuverable aircraft. As one article puts it, they "are not tough, maneuverable helicopters. They are kites with missiles attached."
And a heavily armed kite is about the last thing in the world you want to start doing very close formation flying next to a plane filled to the brim with explosive fuel. Bad things would happen.
The air-refueling of drones is something all the various engineers and other folks are working on — and even demonstrated last year — but it's a long, long way from anything widely available today.
There are probably some workarounds, like launching the strike from a distant base and then having it land nearby for refueling before returning home. But that would add many, many long hours to each mission, is a general pain in the ass, and puts a lot of wear and tear on the airframes. Alternately, you might be able to extend the reach of a drone by drastically cutting down on the amount of time you spend on station. But if all you're trying to do is carry out a strike on a static target in unprotected airspace, why not just send a regular attack aircraft (like they just did with the IS training camps in Libya)?
Which brings us back to the base at Sigonella. It bills itself as the hub of the Mediterranean; if the Mediterranean were a person, Sigonella would be the belly button. Very centrally located, it's between 200 and 500 miles to various bits of the Libyan coast, putting it comparatively close to the action. It's also a huge hub for unarmed surveillance flights by drones across Libya and throughout the Mediterranean; a lot of support for operations against human smugglers crossing to Europe comes from Sigonella.
Heretofore, the US hasn't been allowed to launch a drone bearing missiles and ill will toward some ground target from there. So while it's been comparatively easy to find things to blow up, it's been really hard to go about actually blowing them up.
Now, add to all this some of the extra money in the Pentagon budget to support the effort to blow up IS. One report suggests that some $200 million has been added to the most recent budget request to support increasing drone operations in Italy.
But there is, as always, a catch. And in this case, that catch would be the Italians requiring approval of strikes on a case-by-case basis.
Ostensibly, the Italians are only going to permit "defensive" drone strikes. But in warfare, "defensive" and "offensive" are two very elastic terms.
Further, it's not clear how this will work in practice. Will the Italians say no almost all the time? Or will they give the go-ahead in all but a few instances? On one hand, if Italy has to green-light each strike, then it's harder for the Italian government to play dumb if something terrible happens. On the other hand, blame shared is blame deflected.
Ultimately, it sounds like the Italians are asking the US to make a defensible political case for each strike in advance. So the requirement may really be more a way for the Italian government to make sure it won't be blindsided by events and/or stuck in the position of defending the indefensible, should there be collateral damage or something else go wrong during a strike — which has happened often in other places where drones shoot at things (and people.)
On the ground, drone strikes may not be enough to tip the scales dramatically against IS. But with drones now a big tool in the fight against the group, Sigonella may turn out to be a key location in the conflict.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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