This article was written by Thomas Franklin (pseudonym), who is currently serving as a US Navy officer. This article does not represent the views of the United States Navy or of the US Government.
In February the United States elaborated on its deployment of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA, often called drones) to Niamey, Niger. American RPAs are being employed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to support counterterrorism operations, principally French and Chadian, against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Northern Mali. AQIM and its allies’ descent toward Bamako and the French military intervention in response were catalysts for the RPA deployment, but in reality many in the US Military have desired increased ISR collection in the region for years. What interest does the US have to deploy RPAs to Niger? This post focuses on the advantages of such a deployment, leaving the drawbacks to a later post.
It is in the interest of the United States to counter AQIM and other terrorist groups in the Sahel and to stabilize national governments in the face of the regional upheaval caused by the overthrow of Kaddafi in 2011 and the coup d’Etat in Mali in 2012. The ultimate goal is to set the conditions for regional reconciliation, stable democratic government and economic growth.
2012 marked a rupture for AQIM and allies as they expanded their control over northern Mali and made a move on the capital at the end of the year. Over previous years, they intermittently succeeded and failed in a variety of terrorist attacks and kidnappings and collected ransom money to finance larger attacks, such as the bombing of the French Embassy in Mauritania in 2009. AQIM is now degraded, but hard work lies ahead: it has dispersed and its cells must be found, watched and prevented from regrouping.
Zooming out from Mali, AQIM represents part of a larger and growing problem. Other terrorist groups – such as Ansar al-Dine and Boko Haram – are increasingly active in tough to locate cells across the Sahel. Most of these terrorist groups have regional ambitions and a desire to attack western targets. Few have demonstrated both the intent and the capability to attack the American homeland or European continent, yet they are growing more ambitious. Supporting these terrorist groups in alliances of convenience, Touaregs control lands adjacent to international borders, facilitate arms transfers and logistical movements, and sometimes rebel against national governments.
In this context, RPAs based in Niger can conduct ISR and pass actionable intelligence to French, Chadian, Nigerien, and other local forces “on the ground” to track and pursue terrorists and their facilitators. Soldiers on the ground will be safer as RPAs’ “eyes in the sky” reduce the risk of their being ambushed. Manned aircraft also conduct ISR, but the geography and mission favors RPA.
Fit for the Geographical Environment
Niger is an excellent staging point to conduct airborne ISR against terrorism in the Sahel regardless of the aircraft deployed: it is near Northern Mali and right in the middle of the Sahel, a huge, land-locked, sparsely populated area with few good roads. Even under normal circumstances, the region’s international borders are too large to be patrolled. If the US has trouble patrolling the border with Mexico, imagine Niger’s problem: the country with the lowest human development index in the world (UN Development Program, 2012) must patrol borders with Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, and Libya. Up until January, the US had little or no persistent ISR coverage over the region. The local countries’ governments did not either.
The US likely deployed MQ-9 Reapers to Niger (here is a decent but dated graphic comparing American RPA). The Reaper has a maximum range of 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) and the airborne endurance to conduct 24-hour ISR missions. Reapers provide persistent ISR coverage over all of Niger, and, assuming overflight rights are granted by neighboring countries, all of Nigeria, most of Mali and part of Chad, Libya, and Algeria.
The clear advantage of RPAs over other forms of ISR in the region, including manned aircraft, is their ability to loiter and provide a persistent “stare” to observe people, vehicles, caravans, camps, and buildings. Terrorist groups would have to observe strict, disciplined operational security to avoid being identified and tracked. At a minimum, this would disrupt their operations, possibly deterring some of their more brazen kidnapping stunts, saving Western lives and preventing ransom money from reaching AQIM.
An Opportunity for African, French and American Security Cooperation
International operations where US military RPA operators work closely with French and African soldiers on the ground leverage all parties’ strengths to locate and track terrorists and prevent them from carrying out future attacks. The US military technical expertise in operating RPAs to track terrorist groups, honed after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and combined with French and African language skills and cultural knowledge on the ground, make for an effective counter to terrorism in the Sahel. The French and Chadians, now deeply involved in counterterrorism operations in Northern Mali, need more RPA assets: Chad does not have RPAs and France does not possess the number and type of RPAs necessary to fully support their soldiers in harm’s way.
This presents a unique opportunity for Franco-American counterterrorism cooperation. The gains in support of Operation SERVAL could be significant, saving French soldier’s lives and preventing AQIM from slipping away. Patience and the establishment of the right international military-to-military relationships could also lead to effective and economical long-term cooperation to help stabilize the region. Even if such multinational coordination would be difficult, as sharing intelligence often is, the payoff would be worth the cost.
Such RPA cooperation would be only one aspect of a larger anti-terrorism effort emphasizing training, military-to-military engagement, and non-military cooperation such as economic and institutional development assistance, which over the long term are the most important. It would also be in synch with the kind of partnerships Washington is eager to develop to minimize its military footprint in distant theaters.
If the Situation in the Sahel Deteriorates
RPAs can provide actionable intelligence on the planning of future attacks, allowing the US to avoid, prevent or stop them. These assets could provide the US one more source of intelligence to climb the leadership hierarchies of terrorist groups in the Sahel, assess their activities, and find and arrest their most dangerous leaders. If they become a bigger problem in the future, for example launching attacks directly on the American homeland or the European continent, the US will be in a better position to strike them directly. Yet in the current context, working with African partners and the French to fight terrorism – with them in the lead – should be the main effort.