If you log on to Amazon and type in the word “Drones”, you are given an arms-length list of items you can purchase– from games involving the use of drones to flying your own drone. If you have watched enough episodes of your favorite spy thriller, such as “Homeland”, you will see at least one short scene of two American pilots sitting behind what appears to be a mocked flight simulator, but in fact, it is a replica of the equipment utilized to fly armed drones that may be thousands of miles away from the control center. This was an accurate portrayal of reality: the targets were initially suspected high-level terrorists speeding in a car caravan across a remote desert area or in a hut in the middle of a village. Today, the target of armed drones goes beyond that limitation, but as I write this commentary, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Nasir-ul-Mulk, described the killing of Pakistan Taliban chief, Mullah Fazlullah, in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan as a “significant development in the fight against terrorism.”
And the American pilots presently controlling our armed drones, dressed not in a fighter pilot’s high altitude flight gear but in tailored non-flight uniforms, receive information from observers possibly thousands of miles away or by high power cameras attached to a drone. What has recently been reported is that many of those who pilot drones, far from harm’s way, have never seen combat because of the necessity of having combat trained men and women needed in the “real” battle zone.
Drones are low on the list of our daily vocabulary, but they are an integral part of our daily living to check the viability of utilities lines, to site checking long miles of above ground oil pipe lines to flying toy drones, as we did with model airplanes with tiny gas motors. Today, drones also play a decided role in one of our many ongoing wars. Most of which we are totally unaware of. The list of areas of the world that face drone warfare keeps expanding, as we sit basically ignorant of the government’s involvement with armed conflict from Islands in the pacific to the Mid-East and now being revealed in many parts of Africa.
For me, it was a quiet labor day weekend when I read an article by Rebecca Gordon that enticed me to go further to learn of our expanding use of this very singular weapon. My research led me to discover buried articles, describing the involvement of U.S. troops, arms and, most important, drones in Africa. Prior to the ultimately extensive revealing of the ambush of our troops in Nigeria, when four U.S. soldiers died in an October attack, if you were to give me a blank map of Africa, I would be hard-pressed to fill in eighty percent of the names of each nation-state. What surprised me was the extent of the use of drones beyond the Mid-East into Africa. The Pentagon’s Africa Command is presently building a facility named “Air Base 201” in Agadez, a town in Niger. Your taxpayer dollars will support this $110 million installation and will be the base of operation for MQ-9 Reaper armed drones. As reported by the US Air Force it will soon become the new centerpiece in an undeclared U.S. war in West Africa. The Air Force describes this drone as “…an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset. Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons — it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.
Reapers can also perform the following missions and tasks: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, close air support, combat search and rescue, precision strike, buddy-lase, convoy/raid over watch, target development, and terminal air guidance. The MQ-9’s capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare operations in support of combatant commander objectives. “
What gave me pause was that this new base of drone operation is not the only base of U.S. involvement in that part of Africa. It turns out that the ambushed troops weren’t the only U.S. soldiers involved in firefights in Niger. The Pentagon has recently announced very quietly that there had been another clash in December of last year between Green Berets and a previously unknown group identified as ISIS-West Africa. This is not the only area of Africa that is subject to attacks. There have been at last count at least eight incidents, most of them in Somalia. Mz Gordan tells us, in her report, that U.S. drone strikes on Libya targets have increased under the present administration and, are usually launched from a secure non-combat base in Sicily. The new air base in Agadez, it is reported, will be able to strike targets in all these countries.
But this is not the end of the story, and what is missing from our daily sources of news is that the United States presently has another major drone base in Africa, in the tiny country of Djibouti which you will find on your map just across the Gulf of Aden and war ravaged Yemen. It is from that base that the U.S. has been pointing its strikes against targets in both Yemen and Somalia.
While looking at the newly created tariff trade war escalating between The United States and China, it is not surprising that the Chinese have recently established their first base in Africa in Djibouti, which is physically quite close to the US base of operation. China, as noted below, is also selling its attack drones to other countries.
The Times points out that this “approach (to the use of drones in combat)… for possible strikes in countries where Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked militants are operating, from Nigeria to the Philippines” is evolving. And under the Trump administration, it is no longer necessary that drone attack decisions only be made at the highest levels of government. “The requirement for having a “near certainty” of avoiding civilian casualties’ ― always something of an inter-governmental friction ― officially remains in place for now.” This march, Fox News (not a prime source of information for me) reported that the marines are planning to build a highly new and multipurpose drone, called the MUX, for Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System-Expeditionary. “The MUX will terrify enemies of the United States, and with good reason. The aircraft won’t be just big and powerful: it will also be ultra-smart. This could be a heavily armed drone that takes off, flies, avoids obstacles, adapts and lands by itself ― all without a human piloting it.”
The time for the widespread use of some form of military drone has arrived, not merely on the battle field by nation states but also by terrorist groups, and it appears that it is an underreported present threat world-wide. One report has stated that nine countries have used armed drones in combat: the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Those are the ones that have reported their use, but we can safely guess that there are other countries that are in the process of developing the armed drone. And similar to the traditional piloted operated fighter, the military drone falls into categories dependent upon how high they fly, their armament and their endurance of flight. Not surprising is that the United States and Israel are the top sellers of military drones with China following closely behind. What did surprise me was that India and the UK are among the largest of the purchasers.
On 9/11, after leaving my law school and prior to catching the last subway out of Brooklyn to Manhattan, I spent an hour on a high floor in a Brooklyn apartment overlooking the East River toward a large heliport jutting out into the river in the Wall Street area of Manhattan. Within minutes private planes disappeared from the landing site and a number of combat army helicopters appeared. It was my assumption that they were going to be utilized to evacuate high level government personal from the City. The late, brilliant Ian Cuthbertson set me straight: What was feared was there would be a follow-up attack by small, comparatively slow one engine planes that could not be intercepted by fast moving fighter jets and, thus, the use of the slower attack helicopters.
Which brings me to today: attack drones are not the little toys, similar to those one can purchase on Amazon. They are large enough and capable of transporting a large assortment of weapons including rockets. Why not explosives? Why not steal, manufacture or have them purchased by Iranian agents from China and then innocuously shipped in multiple stripped down parts to the waiting terrorist in the U.S. They could then be secretly reassembled and armed with explosives to be flown under the radar screen at numerous soft targets in New York, Washington or any other high value targets. Not unreasonable and real.