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UAV Infrastructure Noted at the UAE’s al-Safran Airbase

October 2, 2018

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Planet imagery acquired on January 4, 2018 of al-Safran airbase.

Two U.S.-built primary satellite links and a ground control station (GCS) were relocated to the United Arab Emirates’ al-Safran airbase situated south of Madinat Zayed, imagery from Planet Labs shows. They likely belong to the recently acquired RQ-1E Predator-XP UAV the UAE purchased in 2013. The Predator XP is the unarmed licensed export variant of the General Atomics Predator series. A GCS and a primary satellite link were observed at the airbase by December 2017. We are currently unaware of the U.S. operating additional UAVs in the UAE outside of the RQ-4s at Al Dhafra.

Imagery acquired in March also shows some additional construction activity nearby of what appear to be the footprint of four towers at the airbase. Similar towers have been erected at locations that support U.S.-made drones to enhance line of sight communication. These towers may suggest that the Predator XP could be relocated to the airbase on an ongoing basis.  Initial clearing and leveling activity was noted in January 2018 after an expansion of the main parking apron and the erection of six new aircraft shelters in 2017.

The Predator XP is equipped with multiple sensor systems including EO/IR cameras and a multi-mode Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for day/night and wide area search operation. To locate moving vehicles, the platform has ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and can identify vessels at sea with Automatic Identification System (AIS). They are designed for automatic takeoff and landing, have an endurance of 35 hours, and can fly up to 25,000 feet.

Recently, it was revealed that the UAE likely took delivery of the AVIC Wing Loong II UAV at Qusahwirah, making the Middle Eastern country the platform’s first export customer. Qusahwirah appears to be dedicated to UAV operations. The airbase is in the process of being expanded with additional aircraft shelters and weapon storage areas for the strike-capable aircraft. It’s possible the Predator XP are being relocated to al-Safran due to their delivery.

The Predator XP was first observed in operation by the UAE public earlier this year at the Unmanned Systems Exhibition 2018. The “live-fly” portion of the event took place on February 27, 2018, at Al Ain International Airport. The flight took place almost  a year after the UAE took delivery of the General Atomics aircraft in a reported $198 million deal.

This article was originally published on Offiziere.ch

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