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.
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. Continue reading ‘US Surveillance Drones Aid French Airstrikes in Mali’ »