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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