UN Proposes to Use Surveillance Drones in DR Congo-Rwanda Conflict
Pushback against weaponized drones and targeted killing, at least as undertaken by the United States, is increasing now that President Obama has been reelected, and presumably anti-drone campaigners are looking for ways to bring pressure on his administration’s policies before they are set in strategic, operational, and logistical cement – as likely they would be after eight years under a Democratic administration. This NGO advocacy campaign has intense support among UN special rapporteurs – for counterterrorism and human rights, for example, and extrajudicial execution – as well as some, and perhaps considerable support among the US’s European allies. I’ve been meeting informally with various European government officials and diplomats who are trying to get a sense of the intersection of US government legal, policy, and strategic view. These European officials strike me as both circumspect and unhappy with the policy and legal rationales offered by the administration in its various speeches.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the UN and our European allies – indeed, everyone with a defense budget to speak of – are acquiring drones (or at least seeking access to them, in the case of the UN), both surveillance drones and, at least in some cases, weaponized drones. According to AFP, the UN is seeking surveillance drones to monitor the DR Congo-Rwanda conflict – the UN hopes that the United States or France, or perhaps other countries, will make them available:
UN officials stress that there could be no speedy deployment of drones in DR Congo as MONUSCO would need equipment and training. But it would be a major first in UN peacekeeping operations. A previous plan to get drones into DR Congo was dropped because of the cost, But the price of the technology has come down with so many countries now using unmanned planes for battlefield reconnaissance and espionage. “The UN has approached a number of countries, including the United States and France, about providing drones which could clearly play a valuable role monitoring the frontier,” a UN diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.” Clearly there will be political considerations though,” the diplomat added. The UN plan is only to have surveillance drones, but the spying capability of the unmanned aerial vehicles worries a lot of countries.
France might be willing to do so, but it also has to consider other possible missions – such as a possible deployment of drones to support ECOWAS military action to oust Islamist insurgents who have seized territory in Mali. But of course, these are all surveillance missions – not weaponized drones. Perhaps drone use by the UN or France or other NATO allies will remain purely as surveillance – but perhaps not. In the hands of UN forces in DR Congo, maybe the drones will be surveillance UAVs only. But France has not ruled out weaponized drones in Mali, so far as I know, if some intervention takes place, and I would be surprised (really surprised) if it did rule them out. And there are good reasons to believe that if there were serious fighting by ground forces in Mali, the states supplying the troops fighting on the ground would demand that NATO countries supplying air assets use them in weaponized form to protect their ground troops. (Greg McNeal also comments at his Forbes column.)
As well, one might think, NATO should – it would take a remarkably refined moral sense to think that African-nation ground troops should be dying in the fighting while NATO states who pushed for the intervention keep their hands clean and show that they will not use weaponized drones. I don’t know whether that view can hold for the UN, if it comes to serious threats to UN ground troops; perhaps, but I would think that the demand for force protection and air support would become overwhelming – in part because, certainly in my view, the moral and legal case is right.
In that case, there are still many ways by which US use of drones can be differentiated from Mali or DR Congo, on legal, moral, and strategic grounds. Approval by the Security Council, for example, or that they are being used in “conventional” war rather than some counterterrorism operation, or that this is not individuated targeted killing. Certainly there are many ways to distinguish these situations. Even so, this makes the general pushback against drone warfare harder, for the reason that while much of the public advocacy campaign has been against “unmanned” aerial vehicles that do not put one’s own forces at risk, and hence against weaponized drones as such, it turns out that the UN, along with everyone else, wants drones in warfare, because they are useful and, yes, because they do not risk personnel. It is far from clear that – at least in a war to oust the insurgents such as Mali, if the intervention comes about – that there is a meaningful difference between “mere” surveillance drones and weaponized drones, since much of the surveillance will be aimed at providing targeting information for some other weapon platform.
The general point is that some who object to drone warfare turn out not to object to drones as such, but instead to the particular conflict or use of force to which they are put. When one does not approve of the use of force to which they are put, then drones are bad because they do not expose one’s forces to risk and tempt the overuse of force. But when one does approve of the use of force, then drones are good … because they do not expose one’s forces to risk, which might otherwise deter the virtuous use of force. It turns on whether one likes the underlying reason for using force or not.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I think the “drones are bad because they don’t expose your forces to risk” is a bad argument. But good or bad, humanitarian interventions might tend to expose this tendency among some in the international community to object to drone warfare while in fact objecting to the underlying use of force or conflict. The evolving model of intervention, after all, starts from the premise that, for Western nations at least, humanitarian intervention might get framed as a right and duty, but it is actually seen as a form of global altruism. One undertakes it with a greater than usual sense of force protection, and drones provide the greatest force protection. Western nations agree to provide air support to some partner force on the ground – in Libya, for example, some rebel group or coalition.
In Libya, however, we see what might turn out to be the pattern: Initially, France and Britain used manned aircraft in an attempt to attack Qaddafi’s forces, but those forces quickly moved out of obvious vehicles and hid in population centers. NATO urgently called on the US to provide surveillance drones, which it supplied. But it quickly became apparent that if the drones were being used in tactical surveillance, to identify targets, the time gap between surveillance and calling in manned aircraft was too long. So the requirements of speed pushed NATO to use the surveillance drone as a weaponized platform. This might turn out to set the pattern for Mali and elsewhere.
In Libya, the targeting was not very good, by comparison to Afghanistan today (this is, of course, different from saying it was unlawful, let alone criminal). The reason is that Afghanistan is arguably the most mapped place on earth – in terms of physical geography, social and cultural geography – and so targeting there can be controlled in a way that has really never been true of conventional conflict. That ability to control targeting depends on many things, not least of which is intelligence from every source, including extensive ground level, human intelligence. Ten years of war is bad for many reasons, but quite good for developing networks of intelligence; Libya took place far too quickly for anything like that to be developed, and that was reflected in NATO’s air war and limitations on its ability to target.
But Libya will likely offer a pattern for NATO forces, as well as a targeting template for using drones in humanitarian intervention or, as the case may be, the political decision – whether a matter of humanitarian intervention or any other strategic purpose – to support a ground force of insurgents against a government, or a government against insurgents, by supplying risk free air support in the form of drones. Not everyone thought Libya was about humanitarian intervention, after all; for much of the world, this was simply a NATO “intervention.” Intervention, humanitarian or otherwise – the pattern of air support through drones and associated, allied, or perhaps even merely proxy ground forces might prove to be the wave of the future. And a strategic concept developed, perhaps ironically, less by the United States than by NATO in Libya and the UN, or at least with its blessing, in Mali.
(Update: Perhaps it’s worth adding that “deploy drones” sounds simpler than it is. Although they can be flown from the other side of the world, the Predator and Reaper type drones under discussion here require a lot of supporting physical infrastructure – airfields close to the surveillance zones, a couple of hundred support staff just to deal with deployment, maintenance, fueling, etc., of the physical aircraft, and so on. Nor are they a true substitute for a combined intelligence stream that includes drone surveillance, telephonic and other signals intel, and ground level human intelligence networks. The drone is just a part of that package, and to be effective takes time, as with most intelligence activities. Even if the US or France were to step up and say, here they are, there are many logistical and political hurdles to be met. Not to mention that drones work best over deserts or desert mountains; their sensor systems have not so far been built specifically with forested or jungle environments in mind.)