Satellite Imagery Contradicts Reports Of Foreign Aircraft At Bagram Air Base In Afghanistan (Updated)

There have been swirling claims of planes making nighttime arrivals at the sprawling Taliban-controlled air base that the U.S. once occupied.

Bagram Air Base
PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Over the last 48 hours, there have been growing rumors and even media reports that Bagram Air Base, once the stronghold of America's warfighting capability in Afghanistan, has come alive with mysterious aircraft arriving there overnight. 

In fact, rumors and claims on social media, which have ranged from the base's lighting being activated to aircraft being heard landing there, have made it to widely read media outlets. For instance, the United Kingdom's Daily Mail newspaper, although not known for its accuracy on these matters, ran this story titled: 

'Military' planes are spotted landing at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan after it was claimed China is 'considering' sending soldiers to ex US airbase to strengthen ties with Taliban

While that headline does capture the rumor mill pretty carefully, based on satellite imagery The War Zone has reviewed of the base, it does not appear accurate. In fact, in our comparative analysis of Planet Scope imagery from Planet Labs, with one image as recent as today, October 3, 2021, there appears to be nothing new of any significance at the airfield and no transport aircraft of any type on its sprawling ramps. Our review included multiple images from recent days, as well. 

That is not to say aircraft couldn't have come and gone between when the images were taken or that an aircraft wasn't shoved into a hangar. That is entirely possible, although the size of the aircraft would have to be limited. But some sort of substantial operation would likely have multiple aircraft on the ground there. We have ordered a high-resolution image and are awaiting the completion of that tasking so that we can review it. Maybe more information will turn up in that image.

It's also worth noting, there are some chronically confusing details in satellite imagery of Bagram Air Base. These include silhouettes of what appear to be tactical aircraft (F-15s and F-16s) painted on the ground in aircraft revetments on the southeastern side of the field. They are few in number and randomly placed. As such, we often get people sending us alerts that they have seen fighters deployed to Bagram Air Base in satellite imagery. This is simply not the case. Making things stranger, these silhouettes appear to have been painted in recent years and are not relics of prior Taliban rule or Soviet occupation or anything like that.

PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

A satellite image taken of Bagram on September 3, 2021, two months after the U.S. abandoned the base. Notice the painted silhouettes of F-16s and F-15s in the revetments. 

The idea that China could have a major presence in Afghanistan following the Taliban's return to power and America's retreat is nothing new, either. Nor is the thought that Bagram Air Base could be used as a hub for Beijing's interests in the country, but there is no indication that this will definitely be the case, let alone that it is already occurring. For their part, Chinese authorities have denied that they have been negotiating with the Taliban over access to the facility. Additional rumors have swirled that Pakistan may move into Bagram as part of a stabilization force. Once again, there is no hard evidence to support this claim, but it is Afghanistan under very shaky Taliban rule we are talking about, so anything is possible at this point.

We also must note that the U.S. famously cut the power from Bagram Air Base and left in the middle of the night back in July. This was a remarkably puzzling move to some of us at the time, but it has become extremely controversial in retrospect after the chaotic and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan without the help of the highly fortified base, which is located just a couple dozen miles north of Kabul. That being said, eventually, the Taliban would want to get the field up and running even for their own limited use. So restoring airfield lighting would be part of that process. This could be the explanation for what some claim to have been the airfield being lit up during the evening recently.

So, while we cannot say definitively that nothing has flown in or out of the now Taliban-controlled Bagram Air Base, the satellite imagery currently available does not support such a claim. This could change once we receive additional high-resolution imagery, but this is where it sits at this time.

UPDATE:

We have reviewed satellite imagery for October 4th and there are still no signs of any new aircraft being present or major developments at the base.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com