Passengers arriving on commercial flights — there are about eight per day — can occasionally spy a Predator drone preparing for a mission. In between flights, the unmanned aircraft park under portable, fabric-covered hangars to shield them from the wind and curious eyes.
Behind the perimeter fence, construction crews are rebuilding the base to better accommodate the influx of drones. Glimpses of the secret operations can be found in an assortment of little-noticed Pentagon memoranda submitted to Congress.
Last month, for example, the Defense Department awarded a $62 million contract to build an airport taxiway extension to handle increased drone traffic at Lemonnier, an ammunition storage site and a combat-loading area for bombs and missiles.
In an Aug. 20 letter to Congress explaining the emergency contract, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that 16 drones and four fighter jets take off or land at the Djibouti airfield each day, on average. Those operations are expected to increase, he added, without giving details.
In a separate letter to Congress, Carter said Camp Lemonnier is running out of space to park its drones, which he referred to as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), and other planes. “The recent addition of fighters and RPAs has exacerbated the situation, causing mission delays,” he said.
Carter’s letters revealed that the drones and fighter aircraft at the base support three classified military operations, code-named Copper Dune, Jupiter Garret and Octave Shield.
Copper Dune is the name of the military’s counterterrorism operations in Yemen. Africa Command said it could not provide information about Jupiter Garret and Octave Shield, citing secrecy restrictions. The code names are unclassified.
The military often assigns similar names to related missions. Octave Fusion was the code name for a Navy SEAL-led operation in Somalia that rescued an American and a Danish hostage on Jan. 24.
Another window into the Djibouti drone operations can be found in U.S. Air Force safety records.
Whenever a military aircraft is involved in a mishap, the Air Force appoints an Accident Investigation Board to determine the cause. Although the reports focus on technical questions, supplementary documents make it possible to re-create a narrative of what happened in the hours leading up to a crash.
Air Force officers investigating the crash of a Predator on May 17, 2011, found that things started to go awry at Camp Lemonnier late that night when a man known as Frog emerged from the Special Operations compound.
The camp’s main power supply had failed and the phone lines were down. So Frog walked over to the flight line to deliver some important news to the Predator ground crew on duty, according to the investigators’ files, which were obtained by The Post as part of a public-records request.
“Frog” was the alias chosen by a major assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command. At Lemonnier, he belonged to a special collection of Navy SEALs, Delta Force soldiers, Air Force commandos and Marines known simply as “the task force.”
JSOC commandos spend their days and nights inside their compound as they plot raids against terrorist camps and pirate hideouts. Everybody on the base is aware of what they do, but the topic is taboo. “I can’t acknowledge the task force,” said Baker, the Army general and highest-ranking commander at Lemonnier.
Frog coordinated Predator hunts. He did not reveal his real name to anyone without a need to know, not even the ground-crew supervisors and operators and mechanics who cared for the Predators. The only contact came when Frog or his friends occasionally called from their compound to say it was time to ready a drone for takeoff or to prepare for a landing.
Information about each Predator mission was kept so tightly compartmentalized that the ground crews were ignorant of the drones’ targets and destinations. All they knew was that most of their Predators eventually came back, usually 20 or 22 hours later, earlier if something went awry.
On this particular night, Frog informed the crew that his Predator was returning unexpectedly, 17 hours into the flight, because of a slow oil leak.
It was not an emergency. But as the drone descended toward Djibouti City it entered a low-hanging cloud that obscured its camera sensor. Making matters worse, the GPS malfunctioned and gave incorrect altitude readings.
The crew operating the drone was flying blind. It guided the Predator on a “dangerously low glidepath,” Air Force investigators concluded, and crashed the remote-controlled plane 2.7 miles short of the runway.
The site was in a residential area and fire trucks rushed to the scene. The drone had crashed in a vacant lot and its single Hellfire missile had not detonated.
The Predator splintered apart and was a total loss. With a $3 million price tag, it had cost less than one-tenth the price of an F-15 Strike Eagle.