Drones continue to proliferate across the globe, and the African continent is no exception. The advantages drones offer for agricultural, medical, or humanitarian purposes have been well discussed. However, the military use of drones is promising to take off as an increasing number of states and actors in Africa acquire (armed) UAVs. This is particularly exemplified by the undergoing construction of a US drone base near Agadez, Niger.
As anywhere else, the use of armed drones will have strategic, legal, and ethical implications. In this context, the Transnational Academic Network for the Study of the Drone (TRANSAD) at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) is organizing a conference on ‘Drone Proliferation and Use in Africa: Security Risks and Strategic Considerations’, which several EFAD members will be attending. High time then, for an overview of the most important drone developments across the African continent:
Part of the US effort to combat terrorist groups in the Sahel is operating drones from the airport of Niamey, the capital of Niger. However, as the US is looking to expand this operation, it has undertaken what Air Force officials call “the largest troop labor construction project in U.S. history“, a new drone-base at a cost of $110 million dollars, with an upkeep of $15 million annually. Initially rather secretive, this project recieved a lot of attention after several US soldiers were ambushed in Niger while a surveillance drone was refuelling. In respons, the US and Niger agreed to arm the drones based there. Further investigations in the base showed how it’s construction might be illegal, how it might destabilize Niger, and how it might add to the distrust of US presence amongst the local population. Though Niger is becoming the largest drone base in Africa, it is not the only one. US drones also fly from Cameroon, Djibouti, Tunisia, the Seychelles, Burkina Faso, and Somalia.
The United Arab Emirate’s Base
In an effort to influence the ongoing war in Libya, the UAE has opened up a forward operating base, from where it has deployed it’s Chinese-made Wing Loong drones. The UAE, one of the first countries to buy China’s Wing Loongs, has stationed them near Benghazi, though actual strikes seem to be far in between.
In a covert operation, Israel has used unmarked drones to carry out drone-strikes against targets in Egypt’s Sinaï Peninsula. In 2011, the UK’s The Sunday Times reported that an Israeli drone took out a Hamas arms chief in Sudan, though not much else is known about this report. Israel has been accused of using drones to strike locations in Sudan with alleged ties to Hamas on several occasions. The Sudanese army has also claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone.
The European Connections
European countries have provided the infrastructure for drone strikes in Northern-Africa. Places like Ramstein airbase in Germany and Sigonella airbase in Italy have facilitated the transmission of data and connections and the stationing of drones. Other European countries provide intelligence that support US drone strikes in the region. The Netherlands, for example, has allegedly passed on intel it gathered from ships lying near the coast of Somalia to the US, which the US in turn used to carry out a drone strike which harmed civilians. The French, already present in a large part of the Sahel through operation Barkhane, is operating drones in the region too. In September 2017, France decided to arm them.
African countries themselves have undertaken attempts to produce drones too, but results have been limited. For example, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and petroleum-rich, has only recently unveiled its first domestic-produced drone, which was unarmed. Some success in this field has been booked by South Africa’s Denel Dynamics has produced an armed drone called the Seeker 400, as well as the Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance ‘Bateleur’.
The speed at which drones proliferate, combined with the rate at which this technology is developing makes for a rapidly evolving situation. On top of this, the instability throughout numerous countries in Africa, and the influx of foreign actors using their own highly-advanced weaponry, might lead to unpredictable, destablizing, and dangerous situations. The PRIO conference is therefor a welcome and necessary opportunity. It is important that militaries, politicians, human rights activists, and experts delve deep into what the proliferation of armed drones will mean for security in the region.