The US’s overhyped provision of drones to Uganda and Burundi

There has been much discussion in the past week about the US’s provision of drones to Uganda and Burundi for use against the extremist militia Shabaab. Many commentators see this as a significant escalation. Typical of this view is an analysis published by the Center for African Affairs and Global Peace, an Africa-focused NGO based in London, which stated: “In a surprise move the United States has taken its controversial drone aircraft technology to Africa…. United States military command in Africa (Africom) has confirmed that four drones are being supplied to Uganda and Burundi as part of a military aid package worth $45 million.”

The implication that many observers drew from the press reporting was that Uganda and Burundi could end up actively targeting Shabaab (and perhaps others) with these drones. Our investigation of the issue leads us to conclude that many are simply misinterpreting this development.

The initial press reporting is largely to blame through its failure to contextualize what was being provided to both African states. The early reports made a big deal of the fact that these countries were receiving drones, without making the effort to explain the kind of drones they would be receiving. Given what consumers of news typically hear about drones, it was natural to assume the drones would be firing missiles at militants — and indeed, both the Associated Press and BBC juxtapose news that the US would be providing drones with information about how strikes against Shabaab, including air strikes, have intensified.

Therefore, these articles made it inevitable that readers would see these drones as offensive military hardware. In fairness, the Associated Press does describe them as “small, shoulder-launched Raven drones,” but doesn’t clarify the key point, that they are unarmed. The subsequent report from the BBC only describes them as “drone aircrafts,” and neglects to even mention their small size.

DefenceWeb, a South African site providing analysis of defense matters, specifies that the drone model is an AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven miniature unmanned aerial vehicle. The very limited capabilities of the Raven drone help to illustrate how off-base the conclusion is that these drones will be firing missiles (or even enhancing the US’s own missile capabilities). The US Air Force’s web site lists the Raven as having a range capability of 4.9 to 7.45 miles, and its ability to stay airborne is only 60 to 90 minutes.

Needless to say, this very limited range and flight capability paints quite a different picture than some have interpreted the news to mean. As Ambassador David Shinn, the former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, told us, “The drones will provide intelligence, but in a small radius. With their range, they won’t even be able to cover greater Mogadishu. They have the potential to be a useful, but have nothing to do with firing missiles.” Indeed, all US drone strikes in Somalia have occurred outside the Mogadishu area, so these drones almost certainly won’t be providing intelligence that can feed into US strikes.

Some other commentators have noted the drones’ limited capabilities. On June 27, Spencer Ackerman described the drone model as a “four-pound, hand-launched Raven… [Uganda and Burundi will] likely be using it in the same way U.S. soldiers and Marines flew the Raven in Afghanistan and Iraq: for aerial recon over the city, to trace al Shabaab’s movement of fighters and weapons through the Somali capitol. (No missile strikes from the small drones, in other words.)”

Ackerman’s reporting, a full four days ago, was accurate, but nonetheless the idea of America giving offensive drone capabilities to African countries has continued to dominate discussions. Hopefully our contribution can better contextualize this development.

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  • Soccer says:

    Thanks guys for the clarification. This is good news though, these surveillance drones can really help gather intelligence and information on terrorist locations and hideouts throughout Mogadishu and Somalia. This may be the key stone gem that will ultimately let the AU and TFG clear, secure and hold ALL of Mogadishu and consolidate it’s hold over the capital once and for all.
    I remember a few months ago a deal was finalized with the Pakistanis, giving them small (but bigger than “shoulder launched”) drones that would help them gather intel on militants in the tribal areas. Does anybody know how that worked out? Does Pakistan have those unarmed drones yet? They should be given to them, as unarmed drones can help the Pak army and air force significantly in operations against the militants, as well as help them gear up for a North Waziristan offensive that MUST take place sometime in the near future.

  • SomeGuy says:

    Soccer, you have obviously never used a Raven before.
    I’d generously temper your high hopes for this supposed technological advancement.

  • Soccer says:

    Well, it’s better than nothing.

  • Charu says:

    @Soccer, do you really want to give the Pakistanis the capability of enhancing the chances for successfully infiltrating Taliban fighters to ambush our troops? And with the close ties that Pakistan has with China, do you want to provide the Chinese with more information on how we operate drones? Have you read about the Chinese UAVs that they had recently displayed in Shanghai?
    “a video and a two-dimensional display by the company showed Chinese forces using the WJ600 to help attack what appeared to be a U.S. aircraft carrier steaming toward an island off China’s coast that many visitors assumed to be Taiwan”
    Bill, I know that the Long War already covers a lot of ground, but there is the Longer War to bear in mind; the one shaping up with the Chinese dictatorship. We have already screwed up mightily with Pakistan, where we provide them with the money to stab us in the back. But this is nothing compared to our boneheaded longer-term policy to transfer all our manufacturing and wealth to China and build its economy to the point where it threatens our security. Here’s a very good post in Foreign Affairs to consider:
    Henry Kissinger is to China what Anatol Lieven is to Pakistan. They both advocate our unilateral ceding to the forces challenging us. Lieven is British. What’s Kissinger’s excuse? High tea with the politburo? He is shameless!

  • James says:

    Deer Daveed and Tara,
    Thanks for elaborating on the drone situation in Uganda and Burundi. It is useful to hear about the distinction between Raven miniature drones, used for intelligence gathering and other limited purposes, versus other types of larger drones that fire missiles.
    However, one thing that was not addressed above is the fact that Thomas E. Ricks, a former Washington Post military correspondent, now a contributing editor for Foreign Policy Magazine, claimed an attack in Somalia during the last week of June was indeed a drone attack.
    When taken together; the fact that drones may be currenty used in Somalia, as well as the fact that Uganda and Burundi have smaller drones – it is a startling fact. It really demonstrates the proliferation of a coveted technology. It is one thing to say that the drones being used are small, it is quite another thing to look at the number of countries familiarizing themselves with “video game-like” death and destruction.


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