Washington Post provided MAP: The U.S. military currently has troops in these African countries earlier this week. This is interesting to compare to the map of drone bases in U.S. Military In Africa, which I posted just over a year ago.
Time For Congress To Build A Better Drone Policy was posted eighteen months ago. This OpEd originated with Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison and it focuses on legality, oversight, and how we are perceived overseas. While those are very important political considerations, drones aren’t going away, but our doctrine needs to change.
There are two types of drones that do most of the damage. The first is the MQ-1 Predator. We have 360 of these and their performance is roughly equivalent to a World War I fighter. They can carry two of the AGM-114 Hellfire or the newer, smaller AGM-176 Griffin, which was created to do what the Hellfire does, but with reduced collateral damage.
The second type is the MQ-9 Reaper. We have 104 of these and their performance is similar to a World War II attack plane. They can carry four of the AGM-114 Hellfire and two GBU-12 Paveway II, a 500 pound laser guided bomb.
Our problem isn’t just overall drone policy, there is a much more specific issue – we need sensible rules of engagement for armed drones. We learned in Vietnam that we could not bomb our way to victory. We are repeating that experiment with the Predator and Reaper, and we are slow learners. Here is a starting point for such a discussion.
First, we used the 1980s vintage AGM-114 Hellfire because it was easy to adapt from helicopters to drones. The AGM-176 Griffin is half the weight of the Hellfire but it retains 65% of the explosive charge. This missile isn’t much of a downgrade in terms of explosive charge, it’s half the weight of the Hellfire due to thirty years of improved electronics and a reduced propellant load. The GBU-44 Viper Strike is the same size as the Griffin but with 15% of the explosive load of the Hellfire. If we truly are using drones just for high value targets this is the right tool for the job.
Second, drones can fill multiple roles. These include:
- Eye In The Sky – like a satellite or forward air control planes such as the O-1 Bird Dog
- Close Air Support – if we have ground forces in play no limit on weapon type or count
- Aerial Sniper – the targeted kill job usually done by CIA or Special Forces
The Reaper had a failed add on package known as GORGON STARE, which was a video camera array. The execution was poor but the concept is excellent – set up a 24×7 watch on a problem area, figure out what is really happening. We’ll see another system like this eventually put into production. This is a natural role for aircraft that can loiter up to 36 hours.
No one is going to say a word if a fully loaded MQ-9 Reaper shows up twelve hours before a ground unit goes in and then lingers twelve hours after they withdraw. We have produced purpose built close air support planes for seventy five years, this is a natural evolution.
The drone attacks that make the news are these:
Helmand and Kandahar were always the most dangerous place for coalition troops, we now know that this was fueled by madrassas in nearby Quetta that were fostered by Pakistan’s ISI. Yet the drone strikes are inside Pakistan in the breakaway tribal area of Waziristan.
The wedding parties where dozens of guests are dismembered by Hellfire strikes are explained away as faulty intelligence. Collective punishment of the families of key leaders would be a more sensible explanation for the frequency of such ‘failures’, and I can see little difference between this and the manner in which Russia handles the families of Chechen separatist leaders. We ought to be better than this and if not, we ought to be wiser, because such a policy just drives further radicalization.
We are trying to draw a line in the sand, literally at the edge of the sand, where the Muslim Maghreb meets the Christian/animist sub-Saharan Africa. Oil rich Nigeria already has a de facto divide between the coast and the interior, but unlike Sudan did with South Sudan, they can’t just abandon the troublesome area. Boko Haram will keep showing up to ‘tax’ their neighbors, because terrorists mutate into insurgencies and those always become crime networks if their environment provides the opportunity.
The world has a multiplicity of troubles, but most stem from the iron triangle of collapse – economy, energy, and environment. There is little point in taking on COIN duties if neither we nor the state we are nominally supporting can do anything about the underlying issues that caused the insurgency in the first place. We do not have unlimited resources and we should be focusing what we have on taking care of home first.