Some of the drones the United States used to hunt for Osama bin Laden were once piloted out of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, apparently without the knowledge of officials in Berlin.

It was known that the data for all drone attacks flowed through Ramstein, but according to both internal documents and U.S. officers, the drone pilots themselves were located there for at least part of the time. 

In the summer of 2000, (more than a year before the Sep. 11 attacks) a team from the U.S. Air Force 32nd Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate began a remote-controlled drone hunt for Osama bin Laden. At the time, the CIA and the National Security Council were developing various plans to capture or kill bin Laden. The idea of armed drones was discussed, although at the time this was thoroughly new ground and the military was skeptical of their use.

Supporters pointed out the advantages: Predator drones — still used by the U.S. military today — can stay airborne for over 24 hours and can send videos from several kilometers in real time. These drones are piloted from a ground control station (GCS) that looks like a shipping container and is full of technology inside. The pilot sits in the GCS and flies the drone with a joystick. Next to him is the "sensor operator," a kind of co-pilot, who runs the cameras.

In 2000, American intelligence thought bin Laden was in Afghanistan at an al-Qaeda camp called Tarnak Farm south of Kandahar. At the time, the applicable rule for the U.S. military's most recent combat apparatus, the Predator drone, was that it couldn't be launched or piloted from more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) from target. A circle around Tarnak Farm with a radius of 800 kilometers went through Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even if one of these countries had given the U.S. permission to use their territory for a secret mission against bin Laden, there would have been nowhere to place the GCS, the necessary satellite terminals, and a mobile command center without drawing attention. And the hunt for bin Laden was meant to continue to be top secret.

This is where, according to American government sources and American military sources in Germany, Germany came into the picture. A researcher for the "Big Safari," an Air Force technology department, developed the technology to pilot a drone even from a great distance. Whether the ground station is nearby or thousands of kilometers away plays no role as long as there is a direct satellite connection.

Targeted located

With permission from Uzbekistan’s government, the U.S. military launched its Predators from a remote airfield along the Uzbek-Afghan border while the pilots were at Ramstein. The German government at the time apparently knew nothing about it, and when asked the Pentagon had no comment.

Only a few days after the first drone went into action, the Ramstein drone pilots located Osama bin Laden. The U.S. Air Force was already working on equipping drones with Hellfire missiles. But then, lawyers at the Defense Department found that should the pilot of a Predator in Ramstein fire the missile without prior permission of the German government, the United States would be in violation of the status of forces agreement as laid out by the host country, in this case, Germany.

Supporters of the project, however, apparently feared that the German government would not keep what was going on at Ramstein a secret if they knew about it. Americans who were part of the decision-making process at the time say that the German government was therefore not informed.

Instead of asking the German federal government for permission, the drone pilots preferred moving to another country. But where? There was no direct satellite connection between the United States and Afghanistan. To get all the data, several satellites would have had to be used, which would have slowed the connection considerably.

For various technological and political reasons, attempts to find a replacement for Ramstein proved to be unsuccessful. The architects of the U.S. drone program were about to stop the program before it had even really begun. But then the same researcher who had developed the technology to pilot drones from Ramstein had a idea: Theoretically, he explained, the GCS ground station could be located in the United States if the connection to the drones didn't have to go via several satellites.

The system exists to this day. The signal sent to drones over the Hindu Kush, Africa or the Middle East is sent by satellite to Ramstein, then via fiber optic cable running beneath the Atlantic to the United States, where the pilots are. The data for all drone use continues to flow through Germany, but attacks are not launched from here. The problem was thus solved for the U.S. military.

And for the German federal government? When asked, officials said that Washington had confirmed that no armed drones "were either being piloted or given commands" from German bases. The answer concerned the present. About the past there was no comment.

* Richard Whittle is the author of Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution.