Already, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has played host to one United Nations experiment this year (fortunately, it seems to have worked). Now UN peacekeepers are testing out their latest toy in the Congolese sandbox: a small fleet of drones to keep track of rebels from the sky. It’s a sensible move, but disturbing nonetheless – it wasn’t that long ago that American drones were for “surveillance purposes” only, and look what happened there. By SIMON ALLISON.
On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the United Nations began using drones.
Flying high above the hills around the eastern city of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the “unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles” will be used for surveillance purposes only, to help UN commanders on the ground keep an eye on rebel movements. They will be “an important tool to assist the mission in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians”, said spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Initially, just two drones will be deployed from Goma, with a range of around 250 kilometres from the base. The aircraft are made by Italian company Selex ES, who claims their products provide armed forces with “unparalleled situational awareness and ability to precisely identify and target the emergent threats”. By the end of January 2014, this fleet will be increased to five, with some operating from other bases in the country to allow for even more coverage (that’s the plan, anyway).
For now, the drones are only allowed to operate within the DRC, so there won’t be any spying on potential rebel activity in Rwanda, for example (Rwanda have long been accused of aiding and abetting various rebel groups in the eastern DRC). It’s also unclear how much access the DRC government will have to information produced by the drone program, although it certainly expects to benefit.
“Once we know exactly where they are hiding, our operations will be much more efficient,” said Defence Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo, responding to the news.
Deploying drones in the DRC does make a good deal of common sense. In the areas where the drones are to be deployed, roads are poor or non-existent; the terrain affords plenty of cover; and foreign peacekeepers trying to gather information don’t exactly blend in. This makes it exceptionally difficult to gather accurate information – a problem that drones, with their all-seeing monitors, could solve, or at least alleviate. “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles,” said Chinese general Sun Tzu in his seminal work The Art of War. 26 centuries later, he’s still right.
“The Selex ES Falcos are certainly beneficial for the [UN] forces on the ground,” said John Stupart, Managing Editor of African Defence Review, in comments to the Daily Maverick. “So on a tactical level, yes, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will provide much-needed information on potential enemy movements or even just population movements not provided by the UN’s International Organization for Migration. This in turn helps commanders in the DRC plan troop patrols and deployments to far better effect, since their situational awareness on just where their enemies and civilians are. It’s not a cure-all eye providing 100% surveillance, obviously, but it is able to stay in the air longer and for less than the cost of a UN helicopter to fly overhead and do the same thing.”
It’s difficult, however, not to feel some unease at the introduction of a new and possibly dangerous element into the Congolese conflict, which has reached a (still very tentative) détente over the last couple of months. ‘Surveillance’ sounds relatively innocuous, but that’s exactly how America’s drone warfare program started life. It’s worth remembering what that has become: a widespread, unaccountable series of targeted killings (some would say assassinations) in foreign countries, responsible for the deaths of at least 2,227 people in Pakistan alone. The US program has got so far out of control that rights group Amnesty International wants the officials responsible to be tried for war crimes.
Right now, for the UN to weaponise its drones seems unthinkable. But it’s not actually that hard to envisage how that might happen. Imagine, for a second, that the surveillance drones get a famous warlord, or someone wanted for war crimes, in their sights (Joseph Kony, perhaps; he’s been known to wander around this area of the DRC). If they could just press a button and make that warlord go away…well, the temptation would be enormous, especially as it keeps UN soldiers out of harm’s way. A win-win situation – except, of course, for the civilians who are inevitably caught up in such attacks.
It’s also interesting that, for the second time this year, the DRC has been chosen as the testing arena for a brand new UN strategy. Earlier this year, the experimental Force Intervention Brigade – with a 1,345-strong contingent of South African soldiers – was let loose against the M23 rebels around Goma. For the first time in UN history, this brigade was given an offensive mandate. In other words, it was allowed to join with government troops in taking the fight to the rebels; it was not restricted to merely protecting civilians from direct, immediate threats.
“I think the implementation of the Force Intervention Brigade and the stance of taking the offensive against rebel groups is a far more strategically profound leap for the UN than the use of UAVs, which is more a tool utilised by virtually all semi-modern and modern militaries today,” added Stupart.
The involvement of the FIB proved to be a game-changer. With its help, the Congolese army was able to roll back the M23 rebels and force a military surrender, opening the door for a political resolution of the long-running conflict in the area. It’s unlikely that the introduction of drones is going to have such a significant impact – in the short term, at least. The long term is a different story. We already know that drones will revolutionize the way that wars are fought and won in the future. Will they have a similar effect on the way that peace is kept? DM
Photo: A surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) drone operated by the United Nations is seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma, December 3, 2013. United Nations forces in Democratic Republic of Congo launched unmanned aircraft on Tuesday to monitor the volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda, the first time U.N. peacekeepers have deployed surveillance drones. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine