Intelligence: Reachback From Mali


March 4, 2013: The United States has established an intelligence base in Niger, which is the eastern neighbor of Mali and just south of Algeria and Libya. Only a hundred Americans are stationed there, most of them to maintain several American UAVs that will fly surveillance missions over Mail. These UAVs will not carry missiles, at least not yet. There are also some intelligence operatives at the Niger base.

Thanks to satellite communications, this base has hundreds of other people involved in what it is doing, almost as if they were there. This is called “reachback.” For example, most of the people actually operating the UAVs are back in the United States. UAVs are very labor intensive, as you need a pilot and one or more sensor operators for something like the Predator or Reaper. In addition, you need shifts of operators because these air force UAVs typically stay in the air for 12-36 hours at a time. So having the operators back in the United States greatly reduces the number of people you have overseas. The UAV maintenance crews get the aircraft ready for take off and on the airstrip. But after that the crew back in the U.S. can take over. Reachback also works for intelligence work. The intel personnel in Niger are mainly there to work with local counterparts and provide them with intel collected by the UAVs and other sources. The Niger intel group are in constant contact with intel personnel in AFRICOM headquarters (in Germany, which is the same time zone) and those in the United States (like the Pentagon and SOCOM, both six hours away on the east coast of North America). The growing use of reachback over the last decade has occurred because the concept works. It enables a lot of troops to operate from a foreign base without being there.

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