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Drones over Libya: why should the US deploy combat drones against targets in Libya?
   
 
 
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Drones over Libya: why should the US deploy combat drones against targets in Libya?

 
Monday, 19 November 2012 18:50
 
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by Francesco Pio Me
EPOS Insights

 

As media and governmental accounts say, President Obama has a wide range of options available to kill or capture militants involved in the deadly attack against the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, that resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans citizens1 — among others, drone strikes or special forces raids like such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden; a possible scenario could also entail joint operations involving Libyan authorities. Yet, whatever the choice, all options carry substantial political, diplomatic and physical risks. For the time being, US  officials declare that no decisions have been made on any of the potential targets2.

In this context, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which includes among the other Special Operations Forces (SOF) the Navy SEAL Team 6 (also known as DEVGRU) that carried out the Abottabad raid, is cooperating with the C.I.A. in order to update several lists of potential targets around the world, and, in particular, in Libya. Immediately after the attack on the diplomatic mission and a nearby annex in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11, officials report that JSOC planners increased their efforts to locate and gather intelligence on several members of Ansar al-Shariah, as well as other terrorist groups tied to "al Qaeda’s arm in North Africa" — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — that is believed to be involved in planning and executing the attack there3. Worth to note that some intelligence experts tend to classify these terrorist networks in three tiers: dye hard AQ, located in the AfPak area, affiliates such as the groups operating in Yemen and, finally, the “inspired”, like the  AQMaghreb Arab.

The first step to counter the terrorist threat in North Africa is to prepare the so called "target packages". In this process the Pentagon and C.I.A. are preparing their vast resources to execute any order from President Obama. It is still unclear the precise number of "target packages" that are being prepared — as some sources report, perhaps a dozen or more —. What is becoming clear is that Libyan security and intelligence forces are cooperating, since, according to some US officials they have identified several suspected assailants based on witness accounts, video images and other photographs from the scene. Piecing together these elements will As an American official affirmed: "They are putting together information on where these individuals live, who their family members and their associates are, and their entire pattern of life4".

After the "target packages" have been decided, the next phase regards the execution of operations, that may result in the killing or capture of militants. As previously said, with respect of operations aiming to kill terrorists, this kind of state of art operation will likely involve the use of drones. There fore the following relevant questions arise: why use of drones instead of manned aircrafts or special forces teams and in which way employ such vehicles? However the first aspect to be cleared is to define the concept of drone and analyse its weaknesses and strengths.

Unmanned vehicles have long held great promise for facilitating military operations, but relevant technology has only recently matured enough to come to fruition in order to fully exploit that potential5. Starting with a Predator strike in Yemen against al Qaeda in November 2002 - the first known use of a drone attack outside a war theatre, the United States has made an incremental and extensive use of this kind of aerial vehicles6. After massive use in the theatres of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, for this reason US are likely to deploy combat drones in Libya.  According to the Department of Defence (DoD), a drone may be defined as "a powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload. Also called UAV7".

The successful use of drones in counter-insurgency operations is a clear evidence of the extraordinary technical and tactical features of the robotization of warfare.  For both better and worse, this kind of operations have become a defining way of waging war.

R. A. Frampton, in a study conducted in the UK by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, back in 1997 came to the conclusion that drones could be employed effectively in combat missions8. In the weapon delivery role, for example, an UAS can carry precision guided munitions such as the laser guided  AGM 144 "Hellfire" missile or even less destructive munitions, allowing it to perform a medium/high altitude air-strike with the same precision of a manned aircraft9. As Frampton observes, allows damage assessment and rapid redeployment continuing its patrol in the designated area. Comparing manned aircrafts with unmanned aircrafts, in this role the advantages of the use of UAS vis-à-vis manned aircrafts are the following10:

- Enhanced force protection, as human operators are not exposed to enemy fire, there are no risks for the aircrews;

- Exemption from physical resistance factors , associated with manned aircrafts; actually UAS’ performance is not affected by stress. This advantage results in a longer endurance, thus conducting even high tempo combat or reconnaissance operations;

- Last, but not least, UAS result also less expensive than manned aircraft.

Based on above considerations, one might conclude than that drones are a sort of super weapon, the ultimate aerial weapon. However, this is not the case since drones offer significant disadvantages. Some of the most troubling recognized shortfalls are:

- less discriminating capability; as various friendly fire episodes demonstrate, this kind of vehicle has shown some difficulties in distinguishing friends from foes11;

- vulnerability to countermeasures; for example a stealth US drone was captured by Iranian Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)  by hijacking its GPS system12;

- less well understood by public opinion, especially in Pakistan drones are causing resentments for civilian losses caused by air-strikes.

Considering the advantages and disadvantages of drone-conducted operations, UAS are more suitable in particular conditions, which are13:

- situations where there is high risk of losing aircrews, thus involving prudent planning activities of evacuation operations in adversary’s territory. However the definition of “high” is relative to the conflict, for instance, the loss of even one airman may be politically unacceptable in a peace keeping operation;

- high intensity threat environments;

- need to be free of the physical limitations imposed by the presence of the aircrew.

Since 2001 UAS are also used to discharge various task including offensive missions; among the various types of combat missions, we can mention as examples but not limited to, close air support (CAS)14 missions and serving as weapon platform. In at least one occasion, a drone has been also reported to be involved in air combat against manned aircrafts15.

In the Libyan theatre, drones may be deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as these mission require long range and an endurance that in the case of an unmanned vehicle is sensibly higher than the aircrews capacities. The use of UAS for surveillance is considered as a vital part of combat missions, in the Libyan theatre drones could silently fly over suspected camps reporting any enemy activity and detecting any key target, e.g. insurgents leaders. This certainly is one of the key roles due to the advanced sensors on the nose of the aircraft and to its ability to fly undetected over hostile territory. However, reconnaissance is not the only role that drones could potentially accomplish. Another scenario could involve the drone in the target acquisition role. This latter allows targets to be spotted, located,  tracked and identified though with reach-back links to planning cells. In this scenario the drone is able both to detect the target, discharge area surveillance tasks, in order to facilitate the deployment of special forces teams or conventional bombers or even artillery shelling. The drone will therefore be able to give real time intelligence to the operators on the ground and to track its target, keeping the  HQ posted on the latter movements .

This function opens other possibilities, as it makes it possible to close the loop of the engagement in a seamless way. Therefore, the availability of a UAS platform in the vicinity of the target opens the possibility that the loitering UAV could designate the target for attack by a weapon delivered by an offensive aircraft, thus recent technology allows the drone to deploy the weapon itself16. An armed drone may fly for hours over the selected area searching for any suspect activities, if there is any target the drone could fire its payload, assess the damage inflected and return to base or redeploy in a different area. In such operations the target has nearly no possibility to react or to escape from the aircraft.

As the campaign in Asia has shown, in this role drones proved to be a versatile weapon-system, allowing planning cells to spot the target and attack with a complete surprise, thus avoiding any reaction from enemy forces in the area. Assuming that the drone spots a suspected terrorist leader hiding in a  house, or moving in a vehicle, it would be possible to immediately strike the target avoiding the risk s of a manned operation17, such as the loss of operators or the escape of the target. On the other hand however, experience shows that the use of drones is subordinated to existence of reliable intelligence. In Pakistan various episodes of friendly fire incidents proved that drones can cause more harm than good if information are not accurate or totally wrong. This risk is caused also by the fact that enemy forces do not wear any uniform or carry their weapons openly. The lack of reliable intelligence proved to be the drone's Achille's heel. Local intelligence sources proved to be unreliable or also, even more troubingly, playing sometimes as enemy agents thus giving wrong/false targets18.

The Theatre of Pakistan and Afghanistan also showed that drone strikes almost in any occasion can cause "collateral damage". Yet, numbers of innocent victims are not at all clear as every source displays different numbers19. The sure fact is that in Pakistan drone strikes are fuelling outrage among civilians, and even more troublingly acting as a sort of “recruiting sergeant” for the remnants of al Qaeda. In the context of Libya, with state institutions extremely weak and against a background of political uncertainties some caution seems to be needed since it would certainly be unacceptable  to throw additional fuel in the fire and alienate the consensus of the population.

Drones certainly are a precious tool in the US inventory, however their use as a fighting machine certainly presents various risks. Leaving aside the controversial juridical implications vis à vis the whole of the international law , they proved to be silent lethal on the ground  and in some situations even more suitable than manned aircrafts, or even special forces. They can infiltrate undetected in the enemy territory and fire against the selected targets avoiding any human loss to the US forces. It as also to be considered that drones represent a less intrusive response, for the third state's sovereignty, with respect of special forces raids. However their use presents risks if, among others as previously said,  not backed by reliable intelligence in a rugged area like the Libyan desert may result in unacceptable collateral damage. This risk must be well evaluated before any attack mission to avoid to weaken the fragile Libyan government. Therefore the rules of engagement should be tightened.

For the time  extremists responsible for the killing  last month in Benghazi remained at large. Actually, as it happens on the eve of the US presidential elections, foreign policy is overshadowed by domestic policies. Even more when there are inherent risks of failure and potential losses of nationals’ lives.

 

References:

1. D. S. Cloud and K. Dilanian, "US gathering data on suspects in consulate attack in Libya: Intelligence agencies are assembling dossiers in what officials describe as a first step towards bringing the killers of four Americans in Libya to ustice", in Los Angeles Times, Oct. 20, 2012

2.. E. Schmitt and D. D. Kirkpatrick , "U.S. Is Tracking Killers in Attack on Libya Mission", New York Times, Oct. 2, 2012

3. Id

4. Id

5. The first attempt to fly a pilot-less aircraft occurred in 1907, while only the development of radio control units and gyroscopic control devices, the ancestors of inertial navigation, made possible  remote controlled flights. Early drones however, were used primarily as targets for anti-aircraft artillery. S. J. Zaloga, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Robotic Air Warfare 1917-2007”, Oxford Osprey Publishing 2008,  p. 6

6. J. C. Henning, "Embracing the Drone", The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2012

7. The term UAS does not refer only to the pilot-less aircraft and control station, since other support equipment to the drone is included. The system consists of: 1) the unmanned aircraft (UA), there could be even more than one aircraft per UAS; 2) Ground Control Station (GCS), which acts as a control station for the various UA; 3) control link,  which is a specialized data link allowing the drone to communicate with the GCS; 4) miscellaneous support equipment.
For example, the RQ-7 “Shadow” UAS consists of four UAs, two GCSes, one portable GCS, one Launcher, two Ground Data Terminals (GDTs), one portable GDT, and one Remote Video Terminal, while certain military units are also fielded with a maintenance support vehicle. US Defense Department Military Dictionary, unmanned aerial vehicle; supra note 4; “Shadow 200 RQ-7 – Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System, United States of America”, in Army-technology

8. R.A. Frampton, “The Challenge of UAV Supporting Offensive Air Operations”, Paper presented at the AGARD MSP Symposium on “System Design Considerations for Unmanned Tactical Aircrafi (UTA)“, held in Athens, Greece, 7-9 October 1997, and published in CP-594

9. Matthew , “Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper New Missiles Are 'Absolutely Ideal' for Irregular Warfare” in Defense News, 31 May 2010

10. Supra, note 8

11. "Afghanistan: US servicemen killed in first drone 'friendly fire' incident", in The Telegraph, 12 April 2011

12. S. Peterson, “Downed US Drone: How Iran Caught the Beast”, The Christian Science Monitor, 9 Dec. 2011

13. Supra, note 8

14. According to the US Department of Defense Military Terms Dictionary a close-air-support(CAS) mission can be defined as: “Air action by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to   friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces. Also called CAS”

15. An Iraqi MiG-25 “Foxbat”shot down a MQ-1 “Predator” drone while engaged in a reconnaissance mission  the Iraqi no-fly-zone on 23 December 2002. Predators, armed with Stingers air-to-air missiles, were often  used to "bait" Iraqi fighter aircraft, then run. In the reported episode, the drone fired one of the Stingers after the MiG engaged with its own missiles, however the drone launched missile missed the target. This was the first time in history a conventional aircraft and a drone had engaged in combat. J. Krane, “Pilotless Warriors Soar to Success”, CBS News, 11 Feb. 2009

16. Supra, note 8

17. E.g, the November 2002 killing of alleged Al-Qaeda leader Ali Qaed Senyan al Harithi, considered responsible for the “USS Cole” attack, and five other men in Yemen, reportedly by a CIA-operated “Predator” drone using a Hell-fire missile. Their remote location ruled out capture or conventional attack,  among the dead was an American citizen. This episode can be considered as the first credible killing conducted by a drone. Risen, “Drone Attack: An American Was Among 6 Killed by US, Yemenis Say”,in New York Times, 8 Nov. 2002

18. An important limit to targeting operations is given by intelligence, as in a rugged area like the tribal area or the Libyan desert a premeditate hit cannot be provided without any source of reliable intelligence. Being sensitive topics, both sources and methods are kept secret by US officials, however, conventional wisdom suggests that the CIA devotes all its resources in support of the drone program. The vast variety of means includes both technical and human resources, like liaison and intelligence officers in the region, instrumental to analyse a great deal of pieces of information coming from different sources. The difficulties in the determination of which source is trustworthy or not; to better point out this aspect we can remind how the attempt to recruiting of an al Qaeda militant ended with the death of seven CIA agents in a suicide bombing in Khost. Technical sources on the other hand grant the National Security Agency the capacity to intercept electronic communications in the sector, and matching them with the data base of its archive. The CIA as well as other US security agencies thanks to the enormous electronic listening capability, can pick up insurgent chatter and piece together enough information to work with local intelligence services to disrupt the planning or actually detain the plotters. Concerns have been raised by the secrecy of CIA 's politics in the conduct of targeted killings, especially in the light of 367 names in the Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List. Information leaks and media accounts affirm that no person is supposed to become a target until his or her enemy status is confirmed by “two verifiable human sources” and “substantial additional evidence.” In the context of operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, former CIA officials say there is a rigorous protocol for identifying militants, using video from the Predators, intercepted cellphone calls and tips from Pakistani intelligence, often originating with militants’ resentful neighbours. Moreover, officials say that operators at CIA headquarters can use the drones’ video feed to study a militant’ identity and follow fighters to training areas or weapons caches. Off-the -record statements from officials display that enemies may be killed on sight or some special authorization may be required. Alston, “The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders”,New York University School of Law, September 2011.; J. Warrick and P. Finn, “Bomber of CIA Post Was Trusted Informant”, Washington Post, 5 Jan. 2010

19. With respect to the issue of collateral damage in Pakistan, Daniel Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill "ten or so civilians" for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80% of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore al Qaeda and Taliban militants. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found on the basis of extensive research that at least 385 civilians were among the dead out of a total of between 1658 and 2597 killed. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and not caused any civilian fatalities. Daniel Byman. “Do targeted killings work?- Brookings Institution”.in Brookings.edu.11 August 2011; “Out of the blue”, in The Economist, 30 July 2011; Sherazi, Zahir Shah “Most of those killed in drones attacks were terrorists:military”, in The Dawn, 9 March 2011; http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/10/most-complete-picture-yet-of-cia-dronestrikes/; Shane, Scott “CIA Is Disputed on Civilian Toll in Drone Strikes". The New York Times, 11 August 2011

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