Reading Time: 5 minutes

LONDON, June 12, 2002 — If you heard anything, you would think it was a mosquito hovering, hunting for fresh prey. But in the dark night skies over the Balkan mountains, that distant, faint buzzing may mark a hunter of a different sort. Shrouded from view, loitering up to 16,000 feet in the air is a small army of robot spy planes used by Allied forces to watch for trouble. Every day, the spy planes are aloft to monitor the high mountain passes and deep valleys for illicit traffic, across routes in use for centuries to smuggle arms, drugs, even women destined for the sex business. In Afghanistan, some of the spy-in-the-sky observers can even be armed to fire missiles by remote control.

During the three-month war with Serbia in 1999, some 22 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) became casualties, more than half of them American. Now, in the U.N. and NATO’s continuing KFOR peacekeeping operations in and around Kosovo, a small fleet of U.S., German, British and French UAVs take to the air every day, all with the same mission.

Only the U.S. spy planes are operating with the unusual feature of providing direct broadcasts to the public (and, possibly, the enemy). The Allied UAVs and reconnaissance links all use secure communications.

Five different types of surveillance operations have been compromised. Unmanned U.S. Army Hunter drones and manned Cessna aircraft operated by AirScan operate from Petrovec airport, Macedonia’s international airport east of Skopje. Advanced Predator UAVs and manned U.S. Army C-12 Beechcraft operate from “Eagle Base,” located at Tuzla airfield in Bosnia-Herzegovina, northeast of Sarajevo. Surveillance missions in the region are also mounted by U.S. Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft based at the Sicilian air base of Sigonella.

Pilotless spy planes like the Israeli-designed Hunter and the missile-armed U.S. Predator have become the lynchpin of the new technological “Revolution in Military Affairs” that has dramatically changed the nature of ground warfare. Their advanced technology has enabled commanders to safely visit targets in dangerous areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia and now Kosovo, without putting pilots’ lives at risk. Using satellite links, they relay live, instantaneous pictures of what’s happening on the ground, showing troop movements and smugglers and insurgents trekking donkey caravans down remote border trails.

Predators were first sent to the U.S.-controlled airbase in Tuzla in March 1999. They were used to find targets and record bomb damage during the war with Serbia. Co-ordinates seen on the remote monitor screen could be noted and used to provide targets to strike aircraft. The spy planes also monitored refugee movements.

During the Kosovo conflict, two Predators were shot down and a third crashed while approaching Tuzla. The remains of the shot down Predators were put on display in the Serbian air force museum in Belgrade. Although Predators continue to fly from Tuzla, the broadcast satellite channel initially assigned for them has been re-allocated to U.S. Army C-12 manned aircraft.

Both the Hunter UAVs and AirScan craft often operate at night. A typical mission lasts about three hours and involves visits to surveillance locations, flying over trouble spots, checking border posts and looking for illicit travellers making their way along unmarked and unguarded trails. Since NATO and the U.S.-mounted operation Essential Harvest in September 2001 ended, 19 checkpoints have been established at the Macedonia-Kosovo border, with vehicle and identity checkpoints being operated throughout Kosovo.

The importance of these surveillance missions has been obvious to anyone watching the broadcasts. Over the past six months, Mr. Locker and other British colleagues have witnessed hundreds of hours of surveillance that lay out a daily record of border patrols, confrontations, stakeouts and air patrols protecting allied and U.S. forces. Referring to popular websites where satellite enthusiasts swap information on new “feeds,” Mr. Locker told ICIJ. “I don’t doubt that literally hundreds, if not thousands of people across Europe and the Balkans have been watching this.”

For example, on March 21, an AirScan mission from Skopje took off at 5:30 a.m. Over Urosevac, the town that also houses the U.S. commander and troops for eastern Kosovo, the AirScan crew aboard the Cessna mounted a discrete surveillance on target premises from an altitude of 7,500 feet. (As usual, the broadcast displays precisely identified the position of the target to anyone watching). Four hours into the mission, the target was raided by the U.S. Army, as 15 armored personnel carriers (APCs) appeared, blanketing the area in troops. The area was searched. The spy plane then returned to Skopje, while monitoring the main route between Macedonia and Kosovo.

Around 3 p.m. Eastern time on May 1st, the U.S. Army’s 15th Military Intelligence Battalion also stationed at Petrovec launched a Hunter UAV across the Kosovo border. According to the continuous position readouts from the intercepted satellite signals, the aircraft turned east and headed for Vitina, a township in southern Kosovo.

Vitina is a well-known trouble spot, with a split and hostile Serbian and Albanian population. Last July, a peacekeeping battalion of U.S. Marines was stationed in Vitina and assigned to patrol the nearby Macedonia-Kosovo border. But the Marines were pulled out after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The town has been at the center of kidnappings and persistent trouble between Albanians and Serbs. In February, a schoolgirl was injured in a grenade attack close to a KFOR checkpoint in Kitina. Tensions between Serbs and U.S. forces in the region have remained high, with accusations of land-grabbing and violent attacks leveled at U.S. forces by Serb news sources.

Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Skopje, the Hunter was aloft over Vitina. It monitored mosques and roads, and observed a car left burning on the main road. It then flew west, to patrol routes across the Macedonian border. Every minute of the way, the view from its night-vision infrared camera could potentially be seen in every home in Europe — including Serbia and Albania.

On May 27th, an AirScan Skymaster transmitted live footage of a VIP trip to the Macedonian border. The high security provided for the convoy included six armored personnel carriers and a helicopter gunship hovering overhead. The visitors and their escorts were tracked for nearly three hours, until they were lifted to safety by a Russian-made MiL helicopter. At times, the spy plane operators zoomed in on the party as they walked, adding cross-hairs to the display as though they were aiming weapons.

On the morning of June 3rd, AirScan was again in the air, providing top cover for a KFOR roadblock on Kosovo’s Highway 17, running westwards to Prizren. On Tuesday this week (June 11th), AirScan aircraft continually circled the perimeter of Camp Bondsteel in Urosevac, the U.S. regional military headquarters, apparently responding to a security alert.

In the last two weeks, the U.S. Army has extended its Hunter UAV operations to Pristina. New surveillance patrols have been mounted to the north of the Kosovan capital.

The two AirScan Cessna Skymasters currently operating in Macedonia are each equipped with long range electro-optical and infra-red sensors mounted in a ball on a wing. They are controlled by an onboard operator. According to the aerospace industry magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, the aircraft also carry “laser illuminators,” although they were “not slated to be used for targeting weapons.”

The same report noted:

“One attraction of using [AirScan] is that [it does not] feature obvious military markings and therefore allow[s] for relatively clandestine intelligence gathering. To identify AirScan aircraft from a distance as a U.S. asset, it will be equipped with a Mode 4 identification friend-or-foe system.”

Other spy planes involved in surveilling the region include the stealthy Predator unmanned jet, which can stay airborne over trouble spots for more than 24 hours, and the Lockheed P-3, an advanced U.S. naval spy plane packed with top secret electronics. The compromised surveillance images have revealed that the P-3’s optical systems are more capable than was previously believed possible. On one December 2001 spy mission watched by British observers, a P-3 spied on a target vehicle near Pristina airport, Kosovo at a range of 12 miles and from a height of 22,000 feet.

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.