The use of unmanned aircraft in the War on Terror has been extensively covered by the media and academic hacks like me. We are accordingly quite used to stories of Predators loitering in the skies of Helmand Province or Yemen, waiting patiently for the chance to launch a cluster of Hellfire missiles into an al-Qaeda lieutenant…. Or a wedding procession, as the case may be.
But a couple of pieces of news that have seeped out in the last few days show that the sky-high campaign is more diverse and more geographically widespread than commonly imagined. From the halls of Mauritania to the shores of Entebbe, American attack and surveillance aircraft are keeping an eye on the fluid franchises of insurgency. And not all the flights are robotic.
The Washington Post has an illuminating article and map that describes the spread of American intelligence and strike operations in the last five or six years. Keeping up with the trend of Salafist gangs gestating in Saharan Africa, there appears to have been a concerted effort to put the eyeball on the men in the custom pick-ups as they tooled around places like Timbuktu.
Flying out of the sort of countries that you normally only hear about in trivia quizzes, aviation assets from the Special Operations Command of the US Air Force have been quietly at work either reconnoitring or just plain wrecking groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabab or the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Of interest to the plane geeks will be that the humble Pilatus PC-12 (or U-28A) is taking the lion’s share of the work. Most commonly seen in Australia as the backbone of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the PC-12 is a Swiss-made turbo-prop and known as a good all-rounder. Whatever you want to do with it, the PC-12 is probably up for. With a decent range and high service ceiling, it’s just the thing for circling over the Sahara looking for suspicious dust clouds in the desert.
But it’s way less sexy than a drone.
The use of piloted aircraft for recon missions may seem a bit retro, but it is probably indicative of the sheer spread of operations these days. The drones can stay up a long time, but they require a specialised support tail of operators, maintainers and electronic paraphernalia. There is only so much of this to go around, so centralising it in secret Saudi bases or major installations elsewhere is more efficient.
But if you need to set up a small operation in a place like Burkina Faso or southern Ethiopia, a regular aircraft is going to be easier to support.
The Post indicates though that in western Africa, this existing campaign of quiet surveillance may also start to get ramped up into one of attack. Discussions are underway with states such as Niger to eventually bring in the Reapers and Predators and start hunting.
But does it do any good?
A complex balance sheet
In the push to have John Brennan made Director of the CIA, the efficacy and repercussions of drone strikes have come under the microscope in Congressional hearings. Brennan has been the man overseeing the hit list of drone targets and advising President Obama on whether to approve a targeted killing; including those of US citizens working with terror groups. For a President looking to wind down ‘boots on the ground’ operations, drone warfare has been seen as an attractive option.
However other voices in Washington say that the drones are largely ineffective and serve to magnify loathing for America. Former General Stanley McChrystal has voiced concerns that whether they are carried out successfully or not, drone strikes have become a symbol of American arrogance, not just amongst those they affect, but all around the world. He warned that they should be part of any strategy, but not its sum.
High profile cases of botched drone strikes don’t help with this PR problem either, as does the perception that the majority of ‘kills’ are low level foot soldiers, whose deaths would have little bearing on the course of the campaign, either locally or globally.
And it’s that strategic concern that makes the growing African troubles, and the increasing deployments there, such a paradox. If drones are so effective, why has the problem spread?