The Pentagon Rushes Tiny Spy Planes to Jordan
By JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The Pentagon plans to send tiny spy planes originally purchased for Yemen to Jordan, according to official contract documents. In the face of threats from Islamic State and other militants, Jordanian forces “urgently” need the aircraft.
In June 2014, the U.S. Air Force approved plans to send four heavily modified AT-802 crop-dusters to Yemen. The 645th Aeronautical Systems Group — often referred to by its nickname Big Safari — and defense contractor L-3 Communications planned to fit powerful cameras and other gear onto the planes, turning them into aerial spies. The deal also included spare part and a training program for Yemeni crews.
On Oct. 21, the U.S. Air Force released a so-called Justification and Approval document announcing that the planes were actually heading to a new home with the Royal Jordanian Armed Forces.
Necessary whenever a U.S. government agency wants to award a contract to a particular company without having to run a competition, the “J&A” outlines the “unusual and compelling urgency” for the plan:
The Kingdom of Jordan faces a myriad of nationwide threats requiring specially trained United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) forces to assist conducting Counter Terrorism (CT) missions.
These four aircraft are urgently needed to eliminate a combat capability deficiency, which is likely to result in combat fatalities. This effort is a follow-on to contract FA8620–14-C-3020 that was for the procurement and modification of four Green AT-802 Aircraft, training and initial spares for USCENTCOM to deliver to the U.S. Security Cooperation Organization in Yemen originally directed by SAF/AQ [the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition] in a Letter of Direction (LOD) from SAF/AQ received on 2 Dec 13. [Editor’s note: Nearly four full lines redacted.]
As a result, a Letter of Direction from SAF/AQ was signed and received by 645 AESG on 21 May 15 re-directing the 645 AESG to continue contractual actions for the modification of four JSR fixed-wing aircraft and deliver to Jordan in lieu of Yemen in order to bolster CT efforts. Additionally, the LOD stated that this [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] initiative is a counter-terrorism priority for USCENTCOM. The final congressional approval to proceed with this requirement was received 19 Aug 15.
While vulnerable to ground fire on an open battlefield, the AT-802s are well suited to patrolling borders and other remote areas. These aircraft will join six other upgraded AT-802s Jordan received from the United Arab Emirates in 2013.
Modified by North Carolina-based company IOMAX, those earlier aircraft also had the ability to carry guided missiles and smart bombs.
The redacted portion of the document likely covers the collapse of the Yemeni government after Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sana’a in February. Washington closed its embassy and the Pentagon pulled out commandos and other personnel from the embattled country.
This effectively ended cooperation between American forces and their Yemeni counterparts. Between 2006 and 2014, the Pentagon had delivered more than $500 million worth of military aid from helicopters to gloves to the small Arabian nation.
By comparison, Jordan has been one of Washington’s more reliable allies in the Middle East. The Hashemite Kingdom is currently home to a secretive American command post and the Air Force’s 407th Air Expeditionary Group. The latter unit appears to be in charge of U.S. warplanes flying from the country’s Muwaffaq Salti Air Base near the capital Amman.
With Islamic State refusing to back down, we can’t help but wonder if other gear slated for Yemeni troops might end up with Washington’s friends in Jordan, Iraq or elsewhere.