On February 16 the Los Angeles Times reported that the Obama administration is making contingency plans to use air bases in Central Asia to conduct drone missile attacks in northwest Pakistan in case the White House is forced to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year without having an agreement of the status of forces. At first glance, the fact of making public classified information looks like an ordinary leak authorized on purpose in order to influence the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. But the very fact that US unmanned aerial vehicles are going to be deployed in Central Asia calls for serious approach and comprehensive assessment.
The anonymous sources don’t make precise which state is going to host the drones, but the specifications make Tajikistan and the southern part of Uzbekistan potential home bases. Based there the vehicles will be located near the targets, the primary unmanned aircraft MQ-1 Predator’s range is 675 mi or 1,100 km. According to US experts, in January Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of U.S. special operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, visited Tajikistan, which abuts Afghanistan's northern border, for talks on «issues of bilateral security cooperation» and «continued military cooperation», according to a US embassy’s statement in Dushanbe, the capital. Analysts believe there is a small chance Tajikistan will agree to allow US presence because it will risk deterioration of relations with its ally – Russia, which is providing large-scale aid aimed at modernization of Tajik Armed Forces.
Washington may have more success with Uzbekistan. Before leaving Khanabad, the US had used the base for drone operations. Today Uzbekistan is the main US ally in the region. Upon withdrawal from Afghanistan the US plans to leave part of its weapons and equipment in this country. In February 2013 US State Department said the US planned to supply Uzbekistan with unmanned aerial vehicles.
Since 2007-2008 the Pentagon started to get MQ-9 Reapers into its inventory. In comparison with Predator, the drone has a more powerful turbo-prop power plant, can carry a variety of weaponry to give it strike capability comparable to that of an Apache helicopter gunship, the extended range is up to 3700 km. It can strike targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan from Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).
Officially Turkmenistan opposes any plans to use its territory for foreign bases, but it can strike a deal with Washington informally (for instance, it opened its airspace for US Air Force in 2003). Iran, the Ashgabat’s main economic partner, will strongly object. In December 2011 Iranians got hold of US secret stealth drone RQ-170 Sentinel. It was revealed then that Washington actively used unmanned vehicles for gathering intelligence on Iran. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have recently ratified the December 20, 2011 protocol of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which makes it impossible for any individual country in the group to host a foreign military base on its territory without the full consent of all other members of the organization.
It makes Uzbekistan the most likely candidate no matter some mutual distrust remains after the events in Andijan, when public unrest was quelled. The agreement with the United States would negatively affect the Uzbekistan’s international image against the background of growing protests around the world against the use of drones without any legal limitations. According to UK Bureau of Investigative Journalism, only in the period of 2004-2012 at least 880 civilians, including children, were killed in Pakistan as a result of drone strikes. Growing numbers of drones’ victims made the United Nations launch an investigation in 2013.
Drones deployment will inevitably exacerbate the relations with Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, as well as with neighboring states of Central Asia. For instance, it can make tenser the relations with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which already express concern over the Uzbekistan’s air superiority and apply efforts to enhance their air defense capability with the help of Russia. Kazakhstan is also concerned; an unidentified drone coming from Uzbekistan violated its air space and flew over two border posts in the vicinity of Beineu.
The US drones will operations will be strictly classified being conducted by the CIA. There will be no national or international control whatsoever.
It’s the CIA, not the Pentagon, who is responsible for drones operations in Pakistan. Islamabad would not give permission for military operations conducted by the Defense Department which require the approval of its government. The drone operations could encompass other states of Central Asia without their governments’ consent. Drones are normally used for intelligence gathering, radiation monitoring and delivering strikes against ground targets, including political leaders fallen out of Washington’s favor or hired killings.
Deploying drones will require extensive infrastructure, including personnel for maintaining aerial vehicles and installment of sophisticated equipment for different missions. It’ll be difficult enough to make precise what the equipment is destined for. Drone operations require personnel on the ground for guidance and the availability of piloted aircraft to provide support in emergencies.
In future the site could expand to become a full-fledged Air Force base. The US is studying the possibility of using drones for transporting troops, getting assault units to the places of destination and refueling in air. New types of unmanned combat air vehicles are in works to use them against air targets. Avenger is a prototype going through testing.
Totally, the number of drones in the US Air Force inventory has grown from 167 in 2002 to 7, 1 thousand in 2012. The expenditure has grown from 284 million dollars in 2000 to 6, 6 billion in 2013. According to Teal Group, the US will spend 11, 4 billion dollars (or 62 percent of global expenditure for the purpose) on unmanned aerial vehicles in 2022.
The implementation of United States plans to deploy drones in Central Asia will expand the US military presence in the region and create conditions for conducting secret operations using unmanned aerial vehicles while negatively affecting the regional balance of forces.