Washington: The US is shifting its huge fleet of drones from combat zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fresh frontiers, where these planes will spy on a melange of armed groups, drug runners, pirates and other targets.
"As the Obama administration dials back the number of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the US military is shifting its huge fleet of unmanned aircraft to other hot spots around the world," The Washington Post reported today.
The paper said that the next phase of drone warfare is "focused more on spying than killing" and will extend the Pentagon`s robust surveillance networks far beyond traditional, declared combat zones.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has assembled over 400 Predators, Reapers, Hunters and other high-altitude drones that have revolutionised counter-terrorism operations, killing scores of top ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, it said.
Since 2004, the US has carried out over 350 drone strikes inside Pakistan. Hundreds of civilians also died in the attacks.
"Some of the unmanned aircraft will return home with US troops when they leave Afghanistan. But many of the drones will redeploy to fresh frontiers, where they will spy on a melange of armed groups, drug runners, pirates and other targets that worry US officials," the paper said.
In the Middle East, the US has drone hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to conduct reconnaissance over the Persian Gulf.
"Twice since November, Iran has scrambled fighter jets to approach or fire on US Predator drones that edged close to Iranian airspace," the paper said, underlining the increasing presence of the unmanned aircraft in the volatile region.
In Africa, the US began flying unarmed drones over the Sahara five months ago to track al Qaeda fighters and rebels in northern Mali, the Post said, adding that the Pentagon has also set up drone bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Seychelles.
"The commander of US forces in Africa told Congress in February that he needed a 15-fold increase in surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering on the continent," the Post said.
Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton B Carter in April said the US is planning for the first time to send Reaper drones - a bigger, faster version of the Predator ? to parts of Asia other than Afghanistan. He did not give details.
The paper quoted a Defence Department spokeswoman as saying the military "hasn`t made any final decisions yet" but is "committed to increasing" its surveillance in Asia and the Pacific.
In South and Central America, US military commanders have long pined for drones to aid counter-narcotics operations, the paper said, adding that the one possible destination for more drones is Colombia.