A Top Secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept in a joint investigation with Der Spiegel, 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.
*LeakSource: This is the same source that Glenn Greenwald tells Edward Snowden about at the end of CITIZENFOUR, and who has previously leaked other secret documents revealing the U.S. government’s terrorist watchlist guidelines and database numbers. It was reported last October that the FBI identified the alleged source, an employee of a federal contracting firm, and had raided his home.
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.
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 missions. 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.”
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 Mexico.
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 war.
The top-secret slides show how embedded Ramstein has become in the drone war. They describe in detail the system by which a geolocating device affixed to the drone feeds back to a satellite and down to the station at Ramstein. The GILGAMESH platform, which The Intercept first reported on in February of 2014, utilizes a device placed on the bottom of the drone. It operates as a fake cell phone tower, forcing individual mobile phones of targeted individuals to connect to it so that their location can be pinpointed and used in “find, fix and finish” missions.
The slides show that GILGAMESH operations ran out of several sites, including Djibouti, a base from which the U.S. has launched drone aircraft into Somalia and Yemen. The slides also describe how drones are equipped with a collection platform, “AIRHANDLER,” which relays data back to ground control stations via Ramstein.
Ramstein is not the only crucial U.S. military installation in Germany. The U.S. has a separate key facility an hour away, in Wiesbaden, Germany, called the European Technical Center (ETC). According to a previously reported classified document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ETC “is NSA’s primary communications hub in that part of the world, providing communications connectivity, SIGINT collection, and data-flow services to NSAers, warfighters and foreign partners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”
In the top-secret drone architecture slide deck obtained by The Intercept, the ETC is shown as having satellite links to Bagram air base in Afghanistan as well as a fiber optic connection to the NSA’s counterterrorism facilities in Georgia, where many GILGAMESH operators supporting drone operations are based.
When the prominent German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the German public television broadcaster ARD published an exposé on Ramstein in May 2013 and alleged that the base was being used to facilitate drone strikes, it created a massive controversy in Germany. The report spurred parliamentary investigations and calls for the U.S. to explain exactly what it was doing at the base. In response, the German and U.S. governments mischaracterized the reporting and the German government claimed it had no hard evidence of Ramstein’s role in lethal strikes.
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.