Drones Galore: Changing Battlefields

In the 2000s, the mobile phone revolutionized Africa, allowing a continent with fewer landline connections than New York City to leapfrog spectacularly into the digital age, impacting everything from finance and farming to protest movements and surveillance. 

Now, something similar is beginning to happen on African battlefields. Governments around the world have all seen how cheap Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones costing about $5 million—about a sixth of the price of an advanced U.S. model—gave Azerbaijani forces an advantage over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and have repeatedly given the Russian war machine a bloody nose in Ukraine.

Many African nations are beginning to accumulate significant fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Niger and Nigeria reportedly recently acquired armed drones to patrol their vast hinterlands for jihadist groups. But often, no one knows who has what until they are seen in action because of the opaqueness of the arms trade.

This was the case for Ethiopia. In November 2021, it looked like the Tigray Defence Forces were poised to advance on the capital, Addis Ababa. But they were beaten back at the eleventh hour by a rafter of armed drones supplied by Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. 

More recently, in early November 2022, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni posted a startling video on social media. It showed the grainy feed of a UAV targeting system aiming at an alleged Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) fighter camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The ignorant terrorists do not know that within just minutes-not hours- we can reach with deadly fire, many areas, far beyond the line of the limit of exploitation,” Museveni tweeted.

There is a fairly sophisticated set of rules in most Western countries about when and how they can use armed drones destructively. These came about through a deadly process of trial and error where the United States revolutionized the use of drones in warfare, often with terrifying results for civilians in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 

But the technology is so new to Africa that few safeguards, policy frameworks, or codes of conduct exist. This creates opportunities for serious abuse, meaning that vulnerable populations are being terrorized. In October, aid workers and rebels told Reuters News Agency that more than 50 people were killed when what seems to have been a drone strike hit a school in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region. Several civilians interviewed in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, told the author of their utter terror of air strikes.

It is unlikely that anything will stop armed drones from playing an increasing role in military operations across the continent. However, U.S. policymakers should focus on robust conversations with their partners around their acquirement and use. Codes of conduct for their use should be hammered out to avoid a repeat of the horrific scenes in Tigray. 

This issue goes beyond the United States, however. There needs to be a global compact governing the use of armed drones. This means there should be a registry to track their sale, especially since some are being manufactured and acquired by rogue states, like Iran, and could easily be sold on to non-state armed actors.

Will Brown is a non-resident senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Will Brown
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program