February 29, 2012: On February 18th a SOCOM (Special Operations Command) U-28 aircraft crashed in Djibouti. That event appeared in the news and revealed two little-known aspects of American military operations. First, there was the presence of SOCOM forces in Djibouti. France and the United States have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) stationed in Djibouti, which is next to northern Somalia, for years. France has had commandos there for over a decade and the U.S. moved in after September 11, 2001. But you don't hear much about this corner of the War on Terror, despite the numerous terror groups in the region (especially Yemen and Somalia). Why is that? Well, it's complicated.
France has been building up their special operations capability in Djibouti during the last six years in anticipation of problems in Eritrea and Somalia, both of which are involved in disputes with Ethiopia. The Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)-Djibouti railroad is pretty lucrative for Djibouti and France (because it is Ethiopia's main outlet to the sea), and fighting between Ethiopia and either of its neighbors could create problems there. American Special Forces in Djibouti have a base near the main French one. It's pretty easy to spot on Google Earth.
U.S. forces were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq four years ago. Now there is even a small CIA base in Mogadishu, the traditional capital of Somalia. The CIA, and similar outfits from other nations, also work from Djibouti. But most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway.
Then there's the U-28 aircraft. This is actually a military version of the Pilatus PC-12 single engine transport. This aircraft has a max weight of 4.7 tons and a payload of 1.5 tons. The U-28 can carry nine passengers (plus one pilot) or over half a ton of cargo. Cruising speed is 500 kilometers an hour and average endurance is five hours per sortie. The U.S. Air Force operates twenty U-28s for SOCOM and has three on order. Four air force personnel were killed in the recent U-28 crash. U-28s have been reported operating over, and landing in, Somalia. The small, but usually very reliable, U-28 goes largely unnoticed over Somalia. That's because most of the aircraft seen there are one or two engine propeller driven planes smuggling something.
The PC-12 entered service 18 years ago and over a thousand have been built (in Switzerland) so far. The PC-12 is mainly used by civilian operators. It's popular as a corporate passenger aircraft, as an air ambulance, and an airliner in remote areas. The PC-12 is known for being easy to fly, reliable, and rugged.