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Remote-Control War on Mali and Afghanistan Risks Major Blowback On Western Powers

The Afghan model of future war based on armed-drones and special-forces is being refined in Mali.

Photo Credit: Gwoeii/


The evolving western military operation in Mali continues to offer insight into the changing nature of 21st-century war. The French campaign is proceeding in the north of the country, with Britain (as an earlier column in this series anticipated) directly involved in combat operations via its  Sentinel R1 radar reconnaissance-aircraft. The Sentinel missions aid French forces as they target rebels who are seeking to regroup (see Tony Osborne, “ Dodging the Ax”,Aviation Week, 18 February 2013 ). Britain's capacity here is needed by the French, who lack this kind of capability since their Horizon helicopter-based system was scrapped (and who are also finding that they are in urgent need of armed-drones).

In this regard, a hundred United States troops have set up a new base for Predator drones across the border in Niger (see Eric Schmitt & Scott Sayare, “ U.S. opens new front with drone base in Niger, New York Times, 25 February 2013). The Predators - located just outside the  capital, Niamey - will initially be used for reconnaissance, thus augmenting the Sentinel R1, though modified versions are readily available for weapons delivery. This is the second permanent US base in sub-Saharan Africa after  Djibouti, around 5,000 kilometres to the east.

The conflict thus creates its own tendency to escalation. The French now want their own high-endurance armed-drones, a desire their own  Harfang system might fill to a degree but only as a stop-gap until a much more powerful system is available. Paris's current thinking tends towards buying the US Reaper (as the British have done). This is the standard long-endurance heavily-armed drone which the US has widely used in several war-zones, and which the RAF has deployed in Afghanistan against paramilitary  targets (nearly 400 times in recent years).

Any purchase by the French government of an expensive American system would be highly sensitive politically, especially when defence cuts are in the offing. Yet it is probable, on balance, that Reapers will be joining the French armed forces within two years (see Pierre Tran, “ Mali Mission Spurs French Interest in Armed UAV”, Defense News, 18 February 2013).

France's embrace of such weapons is part of an accelerating worldwide  trendtowards remotely-operated systems, which also involve non-western states (such as Iran) and armed  movements (such as  Hizbollah) as well as Israel (see, for example, " An asymmetrical drone war", 19 August 2010); " Suicide-bombs without the suicides: why drones are so cool", 13 September 2012); and " Drone wars: the new blowback" [29 November 2012]).

A striking example is China's reported plan to use an armed-drone to assassinate a Myanmar drugs boss, Naw Kham, outside its own territory. In the event, the Chinese captured him, and he now awaits a death sentence following his trial. The sequence of events illustrates China's rapid development of long-range armed-drones (see Jane Perlez, “ Chinese Plan to Kill Drug Dealer With Drone Highlights Military Advances” , New York Times, 20 February 2013).

A new model

Much of the concern with such new  forms of “remote control” focuses on armed-drones - including among the public, especially when targeted killings are involved. In fact, though, drones are only one  method by which states are seeking to maintain control via "security at a distance" - or in other ways that are below the radar of public accountability.

These include rendition accompanied by “enhanced interrogation”; new forms of rapid global strike (see Caitlin Harrington et al., " Silver bullets: US seeks conventional weapons with a global reach", Jane's International Defence Review, September 2010); privatised military companies; and special forces. The last two of these deserve a closer look.

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