A high-level meeting between the Navies of the United States and Nigeria to discuss cooperation in the waters off the coast of Africa. AFRICOM is carrying out its first full operation against Libya., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
September 27, 2013, 7:53 p.m. ET
For African Generals, Drones Are The Latest Thing
Aircraft Are Being Used to Track Militants, Poachers and Drug Traffickers
By DREW HINSHAW
Wall Street Journal
Taking a cue from the U.S., more African governments are spying from the skies.
From Kenya to Nigeria, African air forces are acquiring surveillance drones—often made in the U.S.—to track militants, poachers and drug traffickers moving across vast and often inhospitable terrain.
The drive to expand Africa's air surveillance comes as the U.S. seeks to outsource some of its work fighting terrorism in the world's most remote places.
"Controlling the borders, the arms trafficking," said Col. James Birungi of Uganda, in explaining how drones can meet his country's security challenges. "We have seen that this equipment can do all that for us.
After a flurry of terrorist attacks across Africa this week, governments on the continent are looking for a quick fix. Shooting sprees in Kenya and Nigeria each left scores of people dead, illustrating why governments that already struggle to give their citizens tap water or electricity might spend millions of dollars on 21st century surveillance planes.
In recent years, Nigeria and Ethiopia have purchased small fleets of drones to track militants and pirates, according to air force officials in Nigeria and the U.S. Last year, the U.S. agreed to give eight small drones to Kenya to monitor al Qaeda-backed rebels there, according to Pentagon documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, two U.S. Air Force officials said Botswana has approached them requesting drones to track their endangered population of elephants.
For the past few years, the U.S. Air Force has dispatched about a hundred small groups of advisers annually to Africa, said these U.S. Air Force officials, who weren't authorized to be identified by name. Those U.S. Air Force advisers say they are training mechanics, pilots, technicians, and intelligence analysts in roughly 20 African countries.
At a higher level, U.S. Air Force generals say they're talking regularly with defense leaders in Africa—and increasingly are pushing surveillance aircraft as a cost-efficient way to quash the many insurgencies cropping up across the continent.
Two of those officers, U.S. Air Force Gen. Frank Gorenc and Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, spoke about the initiative in broad terms, describing it as an effort to farm out some of America's anti-terrorism work.
For the U.S., African assistance, however minimal, could help ease pressure on America's own fleet of drones. The U.S. Air Force keeps tabs on Africa, a continent three times the size of the U.S., with only two drone bases. They are 2,500 miles apart, in Niger in West Africa and in Djibouti in the east.
"This continent has too often been land-centric; we solve our problems with land forces," said Gen. Franklin. But he said he'd seen a change: "From the smallest countries, you have air chiefs that…are thinking about: 'OK, with this amount of resources, what can we do?'"
U.S. military assistance to African countries comes as many of them are growing richer and the cost of surveillance equipment is sharply falling. It's an auspicious confluence of trends for defense contractors in the U.S. and elsewhere that are seeking a toehold on the continent.
Last month, the U.S. Air Force created a private website for African defense chiefs—a social network where they could share product reviews, and go in on bulk purchases together.
Earlier this year, Ghana purchased a DA42 surveillance plane, manufactured by Austria's Diamond Aircraft Industries. Defense industry analysts estimated the price at roughly $10 million. U.S. and Ghanaian officials say the country flies the aircraft over the ocean, inspecting ships plying pirate-infested waters. The plane maker's chief executive, Christian Dries, says he's sold similar surveillance planes to Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and South Africa.
"We have steady orders," he said. "Definitely, this market is growing."
A half dozen other countries—among them Senegal, Uganda and Mauritania—are looking to purchase similar aircraft, say U.S. officials. "We have a real need for these things," said Senegal's General Ousmane Kane. Asked what surveillance assets his air force currently possessed, he pointed to his face and said "above all, what we have are our eyes."
For defense contractors, African air budgets represent a still-small but fast-growing market. Having failed to maintain their previous air fleets, many African governments are paying vendors this time around to toss in contracts for maintenance, technical support and training, said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, now a defense consultant with experience working in Africa.
"It's a great business for these folks," he said. "There is a lot of gold in those hills."
But Africa's entry into drone surveillance also has raised legal and human rights questions. The laws in most African countries provide citizens with scant legal protection in the types of images the government can capture, how they can be used and who can have access to them.
"We're in kind of a legal limbo," said Research Director Emmanuel Kwesi Aning at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana. "Nobody is discussing it. It shows the backwardness and the naivety of our partners."
In countries like Nigeria, there are human rights concerns, too. The lead army unit there, called the Joint Task Force, is accused of burning down entire villages, killing civilians, and torturing prisoners to death. Nigerian generals deny those reports, which they say are propaganda spread by terrorists to discredit their army. Still, U.S. human rights law bans the U.S. from working with the Nigerian unit. And yet the U.S. Air Force legally can and does advise the Nigerian air force, whose plane-gathered intelligence winds up in the hands of JTF troops.
"We regularly stress to our partners in Africa the importance of respecting human rights," said an emailed statement from the U.S. State Department on that assistance.
On a recent afternoon, five African air force commanders returned from a U.S.-sponsored tour of Ghana's recently-purchased surveillance plane. The U.S.'s Gen. Franklin, who'd accompanied the tour, said his resources to monitor militants across the continent are stretched thin.
"Oh man, I'll tell you, I am so excited," said Gen. Franklin. "If they take care of the problem themselves, we don't have to worry about it."
Write to Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared September 27, 2013, on page A8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Africa's Generals Turning to Drones.