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Opinions of Friday, 12 March 2021

Columnist: Fidel Owusu

The Drone Revolution of Armed Forces; Africa’s may be a different story

A photo of a drone A photo of a drone

It is 17: 30 local time in the Federally Administered Tribal Area FATA, in Pakistan. A drone, controlled hundreds of miles away is hovering overhead the bushes with its target in a distant. The target is a leading member of the Haqqani Network, a group labeled as a terrorist organization by the US. In the compound where he is located are children and women who may be relations but also double as human shields.

The target has just entered one of the buildings in the compound. The drone controller request order to fire the ‘hellfire’ missile fitted on the drone for the purpose. Order is given. In seconds the building is razed in a hit. The target is had. There may be children and innocent people also killed—that’s sadly the collateral damage.

The narrated scenario is experienced in many places and sanctioned by a growing number of armed security forces around the world more commonly than expected. The world is experiencing a new age of warfare that puts the human factor in the execution of armed operations farther away from the geography where the real action happens. The application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in drone technology is further giving the machines semi-autonomous and autonomous abilities in the execution of security operations, a euphemism for extra-judicial killings. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and sometimes unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are having to decide life and death situations.

Drones before they were armed had been used for civilian and scientific purposes over the time and are still in use in such areas. From environmental conservation to entertainment the machines have been used to enhance many fields. Like many other inventions before it, security forces have increasingly developed interest in drones. They initially used (and still use) the machines for mainly surveillance purposes within their territories and to spy on other states and adversaries.

Over time many forces around the world have aggressively and dynamically armed drones to carry out attacks sometimes far beyond their home countries like the scenario given above. Moral arguments have been made against the use of the machines in combat. However, militarily experts seem to tout the benefits of that to countries that will adopt the use of more drones in the future. While these advantages are well enumerated in many literature in the field of security, in the case of Africa it appears the drone revolution of armies in the medium to distant future may not be a good one.

No, this piece does not suggest that Africa states get stuck with twentieth century weapons and ammunition while the rest of the world moves ahead and modernize their armed forces with ever capable drones. Yes, it is skeptical about what many Africa states under the current circumstances could achieve with these convenient toys. Drones provide the convenience of keeping security personnel away from action and thereby reduces fatalities on the side of the user. This advantage has made the weapon that of choice in confronting adversaries beyond borders.

Unfortunately, in Africa, many governments have their own populations as adversaries. The pervasive adoption of drone technology would mean to the ordinary citizen of undemocratic and illiberal states, a new means of suppression. While American forces as mentioned, use drones to stop mostly hostile non-state actors from launching attacks at home, many African despots may use them to drive people away from home.

With the increasingly aggressive disposition of some African leaders, unarmed drones usually used for surveillance, may also be used as a tool for persecuting political dissidents within their borders. Leaders in some Africa states have used armored military vehicles to control internal protest. Such leaders may not hesitate to use UGVs to control protests in the future when they have them. With some leaders increasing their appetite to extend their rule and which make them distrust their own security forces over time, the use of such vehicles which may be semi-autonomous come in handy.

The acquisition and adoption of drones as integral units of security forces would mean lean military with respect to personnel. This is well received by governments of advanced countries especially in the West, that find the maintenance of huge military personnel a burden on the tax payer. While human involvement in combat cannot be eliminated, increasing the use of drones in warfare and security will significantly reduce the human factor with time. Advanced countries may be comfortable because their economies have the capacity to engage working populations in other sectors other than the military.

Here too, Africa can’t be at ease. With the youngest population among all continents, economic growth that are not commensurate with job creation and governments that are significantly the largest job providers in their respective countries, the drone revolution will not benefit Africa with respect to keeping a lean army.

Armies in Africa are attractive sources of employment to the ever-growing youth. In some countries employments in the security services are used as rewards for political support. A change in technology that seek to reduce direct employment in the army will not only be economically problematic, but may be vehemently opposed.

Usually when a small size military helicopter takes off from an average military facility in Africa on a surveillance mission, not less than three personnel will be on board. It would take an individual who may not have received any rigorous military training to fly a drone remotely. That doesn’t look advantageous considering prevailing conditions on the continent.

Only a couple of African states produce drones. That requires that states that seek to adopt drone technology acquire the machines like they have done with other manned conventional arms and vehicles over the decades. Even in advanced countries where they are manufactured, governments still need to buy them from private firms albeit. Procurement breaches and corrupt practices that are pervasive on the African continent have the potential of turning such processes into liabilities to local tax payers.

With coffers suffering from liquidity, Africa states that seek to equip their militaries without transparency and accountability are likely to illegitimately enrich the political class at the expense of the poor. Funds that could have solved more pressing problems like that in education, energy, health among others may be wrongfully channeled through corrupt means in procuring the technology.

It is known that manned equipment and weapons are still bought in processes that are saddled with corrupt practices. However, the relatively cheaper cost of drones may worsen the situation. Drones compared with manned aircraft are cheaper and more accessible.

This serves as a point of attraction for weaker economies that hitherto needed to organize more resources in acquiring more expensive aircraft. Cheaper drones may therefore become baits for more and more acquisitions that can be cumulatively costly with the corruption that may accompany them.

While there are fewer interstate frictions on the continent, they are not absent. There are some volatile regions with tensions that still have the potential to degenerate into internecine conflicts. The arming of armed forces with remotely controlled drones especially UAVs in these regions has the potential to embolden belligerents to provoke each other into open conflicts.

Africa’s Great lakes region where we find Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo in a precarious interstate relation is one such neighborhood where the increasing adoption of drones for military purposes may prove disastrous. With a complex struggle over resources in eastern Congo, there are higher stakes and the convenient use of drones as weapons of force may spell doom.

The border between the youngest African nation of South Sudan and its giant senior, Sudan is another flash point where the unbridled use of armed drones may lead to dangerous escalation. With a desert and semi-arid vegetation, the technology may cause more problem in the area than the more forested regions of DR Congo. States that have border disputes and have used dialogue and other forms of peaceful engagements over time may see the use of drones as better alternatives in some form of ‘gun boat’ diplomacy.

Quite connected to this but to be better explained in another piece is the prospects of hostile non-state actors to use armed drones as an active weapon in unconventional attacks. Terrorists are awash in the Sahel and Sahara areas of Western Africa. The prospects of them acquiring armed drones or improvising such weapon is quite high.

If they previously were able to produce improvised explosive devices IEDs, they may equally be successful with getting ‘improvised armed unmanned vehicles’ IAUVs. That would be a nightmare. Already there are reports about terrorists using unarmed drones

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