By William Tucker
In the last few years the U.S. drone war over the tribal areas of Pakistan has had an impact on the multitude of non-state actors in the region. As would be expected, this string of operational successes has garnered the attention of other major U.S military commands and adversaries alike. The U.S. has a distinct advantage in the expanding role of unmanned aircraft – basing rights and a large navy. Most UAV’s are used to carry out surveillance operations and can be adapted for use by a wide variety of military units. With such a large military presence globally, the U.S. can put eyes on a target quickly. This is incredibly important when dealing with time-sensitive intelligence and situations – something that is rather prevalent when fighting non-state actors operating in multiple countries.
It is the latter point that has largely driven the U.S. to expand drone operations in eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Recent media reports have stated that al-Shabaab in Somalia has been a constant target, most recently in Kismayo, while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is being targeted with greater intensity. On the surveillance side, drones have been used to monitor maritime activity in the areas frequented by Somali based pirates. As can be expected, this has been a controversial move for the U.S. As al-Qaeda, and other associated militants, do not respect international boundaries, the U.S. has been forced to follow some militants until an opportunity arises to relieve them of their lease on life. This has resulted in violations of national sovereignty, and in some regrettable instances, resulted in the death of civilians.
It is unlikely that these negative issues will dissuade the use of unmanned aircraft, however. Instead, the use of UAV platforms is likely to increase as new capabilities come online and different militaries work this equipment into operating doctrine. Intelligence agencies will have their own needs and uses for UAV’s because there will always be gaps in satellite coverage. A drone can be launched and on target far quicker in some cases than moving a human asset, but ultimately, cannot replace someone on the ground. As much as politicians in Washington appreciate the low risk approach that UAV’s provide, for both surveillance and targeted killings, they are simply one tool in the military/intelligence toolbox. The challenge, therefore, isn’t the actual creation of this new technology, rather how it will be employed as the U.S. moves away from the war on terror.