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Commentary: Africa's Window Into the Drone Age

Jan. 20, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By HARRISON MENKE   |   Comments
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If there was ever any doubt, it is clear that the drone age has officially taken off in Nigeria. In early December, Nigeria unveiled its new homemade drone, the GULMA, the first indigenous drone to be built by and for the Nigerian Air Force. It represents the latest vehicle to join Nigeria’s budding drone fleet.

Although unarmed, the GULMA will take on an assortment of critical tasks such as surveying power lines, aiding in disaster management and monitoring Nigeria’s economic life blood — its oil and gas infrastructure.

As with Nigeria’s other drones, the GULMA will also help combat Nigeria’s substantial security concerns, particularly against the violent Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s inaccessible swamps and rural villages.

But Nigeria is hardly the first African country to own a drone

Though often overlooked, Africa has become a hotspot for unmanned technology as drones have burst onto the scene across the continent. African nations are convinced the drone, both inexpensive and effective, is a golden ticket to their extensive list of regional problems.

Already more than 15 African states have purchased drones and at least six can manufacture their own. Moreover, Tunisian and South African firms are marketing their products internationally, with the latter unofficially racking up its first transnational order to Saudi Arabia in 2013.

In the eyes of Africa’s policymakers, drones are a cheap tool of limitless applications. Like in Nigeria, drones throughout Africa are filling needs conventional military equipment cannot. These include removing poaching from conservations; enforcing maritime security against piracy; and cutting off drugs, insurgents and illegal arms from crossing Africa’s long and regularly unguarded borders.

Ultimately, however, there is only one real goal African leaders want their drones to fulfill — a military one. With combat drone sales swelling, leaders are scrambling to pick up the latest killing machine model.

The increase of deadly drones is easy to notice. Nigeria’s Israeli-built patrol boat-like Seastar drone, armed with a stabilized weapons platform, is capable of firing fully automatic machine guns. South Africa’s locally developed Seeker 400 UAV? Locked and loaded with two Impi precision-guided missiles.

Others are falling over one another to follow suit. Kenya has been reported to be shopping for Chinese attack drones armed to the teeth, while it’s speculated Angola has been bartering for Israeli strike drones. With its close ties to Iran, even lowly Sudan could move to acquire more advanced and deadly models of its now outdated Iranian-made Ababil-3.

What’s more, Tunisia and South Africa, like every other armed drone maker across the globe, are increasingly promoting their products to consumers in Africa.

The toxic mixture of deadly drones and Africa’s volatile political nature will likely complicate Western security concerns in the region. Close allies today fighting domestic insurgencies, like Nigeria, could become hostile enemies threatening Western interests and military personnel tomorrow. Furthermore, the militia groups that litter Africa could easily employ their own primitive drones, similar to Hezbollah’s explosives-packed suicide drones used against Israel.

Still, it doesn’t take an armed drone to present a serious danger. While on a peacekeeping operation in the Ivory Coast in 2004, a French military base was blasted by two Ivorian Su-25s, killing nine and wounding 31. The stunning success of the attack was due in large part to the live-video reconnaissance provided by Ivorian drones just before the strike.

The raid is a sobering reminder that even the most advanced militaries can be vulnerable to drones. This highlights the most alarming trend of drone proliferation yet: Drones, armed or not, have and will be used to challenge Western militaries in a variety of ways around the globe. From Botswana to Belarus, South America to the South China Sea, the Western monopoly of unmanned technology is vanishing.

Clashes similar to the French-Ivorian will increase. Drones abetted Russia and Georgia’s drive to war, and the same is well on its way between China and Japan. Not even the US has been spared as Iranian drones often loiter their way into US-administered airspace in the Middle East.

It was once asked what will happen when the world has drones. Nigeria and its GULMA, along with the rest of Africa, give a piece of the answer.

For the US and its allies, Africa is a starting point to begin to understand how drones have and will be used. As unmanned development progresses, Africa will help military planners grasp the rising threat likely to be faced in a not-so-distant future. ■

Menke is a master’s degree candidate at Missouri State University whose research focuses on defense technology and national security, specifically drones and missile defense.

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