By Jeremy Scahill on April 17, 2015 from The Intercept (TI)
A TOP-SECRET U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept
confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany
serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is
the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in
the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in
Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret
slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen
to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with
Predator and Reaper drones.
Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program,
U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s
role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased
evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the
slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential
function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S.
military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S.
government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of
fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to
the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the
signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what
the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least
not as they do now,” the source said.
The new evidence places German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an awkward
position given Germany’s close diplomatic alliance with the United
States. The German government has granted the U.S. the right to use the
property, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing
there that violates German law.
The U.S. government maintains that its drone strikes against al Qaeda
and its “associated forces” are legal, even outside of declared war
zones. But German legal officials have suggested that such operations
are only justifiable in actual war zones. Moreover, Germany has the
right to prosecute “criminal offenses against international law … even
when the offense was committed abroad and bears no relation to Germany,”
according to Germany’s Code of Crimes against International Law, which passed in 2002.
This means that American personnel stationed at Ramstein could, in
theory, be vulnerable to German prosecution if they provide drone pilots
with data used in attacks.
While the German government has been reluctant to pursue such
prosecutions, it may come under increasing pressure to do so. “It is
simply murder,” says Björn Schiffbauer of the Institute for
International Law at the University of Cologne. Legal experts
interviewed by Der Spiegel claimed that U.S. personnel could be charged as war criminals by German prosecutors.
RAMSTEIN IS ONE of the
largest U.S. military bases outside the United States, hosting more than
16,000 military and civilian personnel. The relay center at Ramstein,
which was completed in late 2013, sits in the middle of a massive forest
and is adjacent to a baseball diamond used by students at the Ramstein
American High School. The large compound, made of reinforced concrete
and masonry walls and enclosed in a horseshoe of trees, has a sloped
metal roof. Inside this building, air force squadrons can coordinate the
signals necessary for a variety of drone surveillance and strike
On two sides of the building are six massive golf ball-like
fixtures known as satellite relay pads.
In a 2010 budget request
for the Ramstein satellite station, the U.S. Air Force asserted that
without the Germany-based facility, the drone program could face
“significant degradation of operational capability” that could “have a
serious impact on ongoing and future missions.” Predator and Reaper
drones, as well as Global Hawk aircraft, would “use this site to conduct
operations” in Africa and the Middle East, according to the request. It
stated bluntly that without the use of Ramstein, drone “weapon strikes
cannot be supported.”
“Because of multi-theater-wide operations, the respective SATCOM
Relay Station must be located at Ramstein Air Base to provide most
current information to the war-fighting commander at any time demanded,”
according to the request. The relay station, according to that
document, would also be used to support the operations of a secretive
black ops Air Force program known as “Big Safari.”
The classified slide deck maps out an intricate spider web of
facilities across the U.S. and the globe: from drone command centers on
desert military bases in the U.S. to Ramstein to outposts in
Afghanistan, Djibouti, Qatar and Bahrain and back to NSA facilities in
Washington and Georgia.
What is clear is that most paths within
America’s drone maze run through Ramstein.
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Creech Air Force Base in Nevada is central to multiple prongs of the
U.S. drone war. Personnel stationed at the facility are responsible for
drone operations in Afghanistan — which has been on the receiving end of more drone strikes than any country in the world — and Pakistan,
where the CIA has conducted a covert air war for the last decade. The
agency’s campaign has killed thousands of people, including hundreds of
civilians. Some drone missions are operated from other locations, such
as Fort Gordon in Georgia and Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New
The pilots at Creech and other ground control stations send their
commands to the drones they operate via transatlantic fiber optic cables
to Germany, where the Ramstein uplink bounces the signal to a satellite
that connects to drones over Yemen, Somalia and other target countries.
Ramstein is ideally situated as a satellite relay station to minimize
the lag time between the commands of the pilots and their reception by
the aircraft, called latency. Too much latency — which would be caused
by additional satellite relays — would make swift maneuvers impossible.
Video images from a drone could not be delivered to the U.S. in near
real time. Without the speed and precise control an installation like
Ramstein allows, pilots would practically be flying blind.
A diagram in the secret document shows how the process works.
Ramstein’s satellite uplink station is used to route communications
between the pilots and aircraft deployed in a variety of countries.
Video from the drones is routed back through Ramstein and then relayed
to a variety of U.S. intelligence and military facilities around the
U.S. and the globe. Another diagram shows how pilots at Creech connect
to Ramstein and then to the Predator Primary Satellite Link, which
facilitates direct control of the drone wherever it is operating.
All of this — location, combined with the need to securely house the
large quantities of equipment, buildings and personnel necessary to
operate the satellite uplink — has made Ramstein one of the most viable
sites available to the U.S. to serve this critical function in the drone
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