US Surveillance Drones Aid French Airstrikes in Mali

The Wall Street Journal national security reporting team has a new article in today’s Journal on how US surveillance drones are providing intelligence and targeting information to French forces in Mali, which then use the information to direct French (manned) airstrikes.  The drone surveillance marks, according to the article, a widened role for the US in support of French military operations in Mali:

U.S. Reaper drones have provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly 60 French airstrikes in the past week alone in a range of mountains the size of Britain, where Western intelligence agencies believe militant leaders are hiding, say French officials.

The operations target top militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of January’s hostage raid on an Algerian natural gas plant that claimed the lives of at least 38 employees, including three Americans. Chad forces said they killed him on Saturday, a day after saying they had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mali wing.

French, U.S. and Malian officials have not confirmed the deaths of Mr. Belmokhtar or Mr. Zeid, citing a lack of definitive information from the field. But they say the new arrangement with the U.S. has led in recent days to a raised tempo in strikes against al Qaeda-linked groups and their allies some time after the offensive began in January. That is a shift for the U.S., which initially limited intelligence sharing that could pinpoint targets for French strikes.

The lack of French drone capacity, for surveillance or attack, was noted in a New York Times article two weeks ago that profiled the French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.  Le Drian was blunt about the need for and the lack of drones (emphasis added below):

[W]hile the French express hope that African forces will pursue the Islamists into the mountains and deserts of the vast north, it is highly likely that French special forces will have to continue to operate on their own and alongside the Africans, with the help of American surveillance drones.

One of the most shocking lessons for him from Mali, Mr. Le Drian said, was the lack of French surveillance drones, which he called “incomprehensible.” France has only two drones in theater, he said. “A country with aeronautical skills, that makes good airplanes and that did not anticipate what surveillance and intelligence will look like tomorrow — or even combat!” he said. France “did not anticipate and refused to make this choice — but this doesn’t date from today but from 5 or 10 years ago. I have asked that someone explain the story to me so I understand why we didn’t do it, since, really, we should have.”

Perhaps the problem was national pride and a refusal to buy American? “I’m trying to remedy this impasse and this pride,” he said. “It’s a real question for us.”

Le Derian says that this dates back five or ten years.  No doubt that is true, but I wonder whether part of the problem in the last few years, especially, has been the increasingly vocal anti-drone campaigners and their impact upon national parliaments in Europe.  The anti-drone campaign has done a lot to create a stigma in Europe around drones, whether for surveillance or strikes.  It paints them as anything from a coward’s weapon – the “you refuse to fight your enemy man-to-man, mano-a-mano” meme, ignoring the fact though most of modern weaponry promotes remoteness, whether firing a cruise missile from the bowels of a ship, or firing an artillery shell from many kilometers away – to Skynet, a universal brooding presence watching everything.

II

The reality is a lot more prosaic, of course.  Drones require an airstrip, refueling and repair facilities, a sizable human team, just to keep them in the air, and all of that in-theater – piloting it from Nevada changes none of that. But the prosaic reality doesn’t count much, so far as I can tell, against predictions of the dystopian technological future drawn from a 1991 movie starring Arnold.  Sci fi pop culture is an easier narrative for public consumption than the much less interesting facts of how automation is gradually entering into the machines of war, as part of the process by which it is entering many technologies, military or civilian.  The problem is that all of us enjoy the pop culture references – me and you and everyone else – but we have passed the point at which we can rely for envisioning the future on Philip K. Dick novels.  There are actual technologies underway, with actual directions for future technologies, paths that open some possibilities and close others.  Those interested in serious discussions about where technology will and should go need to separate the “fun” moments of Terminator this and Skynet that from the real discussions of what real technologies are underway.   

I say this with respect to drone technology, but of course it applies with even greater force to the development of increasingly automated weapons.  I’ll return to these themes about narrative and reality in military technology in another post, but it’s important to recognize that it’s not necessarily politically effortless for some of America’s NATO allies to acquire regular remotely-piloted drones even just for surveillance, let alone to carry weapons.  That probably affects France less than other NATO countries; the French martial tradition is stronger than other places in Europe.

But here’s the basic problem for conducting operations in Mali.  The territory is vast, and much of it desert or difficult mountains.  There are many places for militants of Al Queda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to hide and that’s exactly what they are doing.  France has neither the forces nor the political will to engage this territory from the ground over the long term; what it can supply is air power and coordination with ground forces from Mali (and other places).  But to know where to strike in a terrain a vast as this can only be done with an elaborate intelligence operation, both from the ground and in the air.  Whether the French or the Mali government can create the on-ground intelligence is hard to say, but it can be said that without drones, the air surveillance part of it is staggeringly difficult.

The use of drones at this point is part of the tactical conflict; US drones identify targets and French jets strike.  But as an experienced observer of the Libyan conflict told me, just as there was a reason why NATO’s commander made an urgent appeal to the US for surveillance drones there, there is also a reason why, over time, those surveillance drones turn into attack drones.  First, in a tactical battlefield setting, as in Libya, the time gap (between surveillance drones identifying a target and manned aircraft reaching it) is often too great.  The target might well have moved, in a very short amount of time.  Second, attack aircraft are very often not as precise and not capable of being as precise as a drone in terms of collateral damage.  The drone is able to pick its moment to fire far more carefully, with greater loiter time and ability to track the target; the limited time frame for manned aircraft does not allow for this.  Surveillance drones in Mali ought to turn into weapons-firing drones, for exactly these reasons.  It is often more effective than trying to coordinate drone surveillance and manned airstrikes, and it is also generally more precise in the use of force.

III

So far as I can tell from conversations with various military and security officials from different NATO countries, they are perfectly aware of this.  They believe that armed drones – particularly when part of a carefully worked out strategy of surveillance from drones and human intelligence networks on the ground- are militarily the most effective and also most sparing of the civilian population.  But they appear to hesitate to say so – hesitating to say so in part for fear of public and parliamentary opinion.  The tendency is not to say what they think – which would require directly addressing the anti-drone campaigners and their parliamentary supporters, and telling them that they believe these are the most precise weapons systems available for important missions.

They might add that no system has zero collateral damage, and no one should expect that.  On the other hand, certainly the manned airstrikes in Mali (and in Libya before that) have not been free of civilian casualties, and before criticizing armed drones, one should count up the human costs of manned airstrikes and ask the hard questions of which is the better technology for what kind of mission.  This assumes in the first place, of course, that one has already decided that force is justified and prudent.  France went into Mali on multiple grounds – to deny safe haven to terrorist groups, to support the sovereignty of the Mali government, and to promote the human rights goal of preventing a fantastically vicious group of terrorist/militants/extremists, whatever term one prefers, from gaining control over the governance of a territory and its population.  From a strategic counterterrorism standpoint, it is the forcible denial of territory to militants with an internal insurgent aspect, a regional destabilization aspect, and a transnational terrorist aspect. If that’s the case, then the use of force is justified, and the question is not whether to use force or not, but what method of force is militarily most effective and, within the limits of military necessity, most sparing of civilians.

There is not a rule of law requiring that a side must use only most precise weapon, let alone a rule of law requiring that a side acquire the most advanced precision weapon possible; these are good policies but not a matter of weapons law, even taking the law of “precautions” in attack into account.  A lawful weapon is a lawful weapon, and certainly French jets are a lawful weapon.  But it is likely the case that armed drones would be more effective militarily in many of the contexts of Mali, especially over a longer run that consists not merely of ejecting the extremists from the capital, but seeking to regaining sovereign control over immense territory.  It is likely that, especially in combination with other elements of intelligence gathering, armed drones would be more sparing of the civilian population.

IV

Certain key European national security actors believe both these things, I am quite certain.  Their differences with the US are often not so much about the capabilities of the technology as that they and the US have different legal views of what constitutes lawful targeting. No doubt they also believe (as is often said) that these technologies make it “too” easy for the US to decide to use force.  And they continue to think this, of course, until the moment when they believe, on whatever grounds, that they or someone ought to use force  - but hesitate to do so for concern of both risk to own-forces and risk to civilians because they (virtuously) failed to acquire drones (surveillance and weaponized).  At that point grand concerns about making the use force “too” easy give way to wishing, after all is said and done, that one possessed the “easiest” way to use force.  But one does not get this both ways.

Some of our allies appear not to want to have to say these things directly – to powerful constituencies in their own domestic systems.  They don’t want to stand up and say, directly and plainly, these weapons are more effective and safer for everyone in important situations – and we need them for those reasons.  Instead they fall back on saying, “Well, if the US (and Britain) are adopting drones, then we have to as well.  Not because we really want to, of course, but because we have to maintain uniformity.”  That’s not really so and that’s not really the reason for adopting them.

If NATO allies believe, as I think it obvious they do, that drones – including armed drones – are a better weapon system for certain missions, then they need to stand up and say so.  If they don’t believe that, then they should stand up and say that, too, and there can be a debate about that.  But instead saying it’s just a matter of keeping up with the rest of NATO or, worse, blaming it on a supposed American-induced arms race in drone technology is quite wrong.  It will tend to stigmatize those allies’ use of weaponized drones, should they ever do so, no matter how good their reasons.  And which, in the most important cases such as Mali, they ought to, and likely will do, because, for certain types of important missions, they are the best weapon available.

(Moved from top graf:  The Journal’s national security reporters have been on the cutting edge of reporting on US counterterrorism strategy as a whole, rather than simply reporting on leaks and day-to-day operations; the Times, WaPo, and Journal all have fine national security reporting, but the Journal is the place for detailed reporting that points to the larger “counterterrorism-on-offense” strategic picture.)

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