Monday, July 13, 2015

U.S. Drone Base in Northern Africa?

     According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is interested in establishing drone bases in North African nations.  Talks continue between the U.S. and regional partners regarding where such bases and their drones could be stationed, though no nation has officially agreed yet.  The U.S. seeks to eliminate intelligence “blind spots” in North Africa where groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the burgeoning Islamic State (IS, ISIS, or ISIL) group's global enterprises are making marginal progress.

     While this aspiration by the U.S. appears to be another example of the seeming unlimited nature of the war on terror, it simply represents standard interest and practices for intelligence. The U.S. employs a broad range of intelligence collection around the world from spies on the ground (human intelligence) to analysis of photographs taken by high altitude spy planes (image intelligence) to the monitoring of electronic communications (signals intelligence). Modern military drones employed by the U.S. serve as one of the most advanced intelligence collection platforms in history capable of operating among several intelligence disciplines.

     However, the danger of operations expanding beyond intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) persists.  Armed drones have been deployed to “outside areas of active hostilities,” such as Yemen and Somalia.  These are regions in which the U.S. is not actively engaged in war, as it was in Afghanistan or in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Rather, the U.S. has maintained that while not in a "hot conflict" - an area of hostility such as Afghanistan where U.S. troops are engaged in fighting - it can operate outside areas of active hostilities because, in the words of former Defense Department General Council Stephen Preston as recently as April, “The United States’ armed conflict against al-Qa’ida and associated forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere also continues.”

     Intelligence collection, especially in the volatile hotbed of Libya that has seen clashes between pro-internationally backed government and non-state actors, non-state actors vs. non-state actors (groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda vs. groups accepted as part of the so-called Islamic State), and attacks on civilian buildings by non-state actors is welcome.  However, military action by the U.S. within these borders enjoys specious authorization at best.

     The Obama administration has indicated an interest in venturing into other regions as evidenced by its broad draft authorization foruse of military force (AUMF) against IS.  When asked at a congressional hearing in April when the administration is likely to take a more offensive posture against IS in other regions, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Michael Lumpkin responded by saying, “the key is and I think that’s one of the reasons why the president submitted the authorized use of military force against ISIL that was not geographically bounded…[I]t was against the organization of ISIL as we see it metastasizing in these areas that lack governance – these places like Libya...I think this was an initiative to have the flexibility should they [IS] metastasize to prove a threat against the United States that we can effectively respond.”

     For a candidate that sought to curb war operations, President Obama has done the opposite significantly expanding the military footprint abroad despite trying to cover himself by classifying his actions under a "light" military footprint.  While global terror threats have grown under his presidency as opposed to his predecessor – not necessarily the fault of either – President Obama has tried to react as best he could while keeping true to his 2008 campaign rhetoric.

     The other troubling aspect of a potential expansion of bases to North Africa is the already strained workforce and limited sorties.  Following the emergence of several new terrorist entities abroad, American’s new found monopoly on sophisticated drone technology – at one time thought of as a panacea – received a heavy workout.  As such, several in the workforce came under significant stress and began to drop out.  As recently as April, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reduced the number of global combat air patrols (CAPs) – aircraft patrols provided over an objective area usually involving four unmanned aircraft – from 65 to 60.

     Military leaders, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region who are trying to monitor China’s newly aggressive posture as well as execute the administration’s “pivot” or “re-balance” to Asia policy have expressed the desire for more unmanned surveillance aircraft to provide greater situational awareness.  “We need to have the types of…intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance…ISR assets that allow us to maintain our knowledge of what’s going on. These are globally stressed because of the things we’re doing in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Yemen and many of those assets are similar in type we would use in that arena,”  former commander of Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear said during congressional testimony in April.

     The situation in Africa merits intense monitoring.  But given the track record of the administration, which has twisted congressional authorizations of force to operate well beyond intended areas, it is not unlikely to think the drone war could come to North Africa.  In fact, the U.S. recently targeted a suspected militant in Libya thought to have ties to al-Qaeda.       

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