Countering violent extremism in Africa is complicated and nuanced. It requires a multi-faceted intervention to address the socio-economic issues that permit an insurgent group to flourish. From a security perspective, the dense and expansive rainforests, grasslands, coastlands and mountains provide an excellent theatre for a guerrilla-like modus operandi seeking to undermine and challenge national security through violence and displacement.
Africa has a complex security environment that is continually evolving. The continent faces threats from multiple non-state actors employing ambush, sabotage, raid and hit-and-run tactics that consistently target civilians. According to the United Nations (UN), in one Horn of Africa country, at least 613 civilians were killed and 948 injured in 2022 alone, marking a 30 percent rise from 2021. A record 36 million Africans are currently displaced, overwhelmingly due to conflict driven by insurgencies and extremists. In one West African country, the number of annual fatalities linked to militant groups doubled in 2022.
Some of the non-state military groups have been terrorising countries for decades, conducting brutal attacks in areas where peacekeeping forces have battled to safeguard hard-to-reach rural populations. One central African nation in 2022 saw violent protests against UN peacekeeping forces for not taking enough action in ending a decades-old conflict. The protests compounded security issues as it allowed opportunistic rebels to attack under the cover of unrest.
The intimidation and provocation strategies of terrorism on the continent have proved that a new approach may be needed, particularly from an intelligence and rapid reaction perspective. The intelligence personnel of African security forces and peacekeeping missions, while highly capable and experienced, could benefit from more robust and faster aerial capabilities.
One technology that has the potential to meet the demands of asymmetrical warfare is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Designed for rapid deployment, UAVs, specifically unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and loitering munitions, have been used to great success by countries in various military operations, such as border patrol, counter insurgency (COIN), strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. While these are not new technologies, the fourth industrial revolution has permitted cost-effective manufacturing, rapid entry to market and considerably lower acquisition costs. Powerful aerial systems that can surveil large areas and counter a wide range of threats are becoming increasingly available to militaries that need to modernise capabilities with constricted acquisition funding.
When militaries need to achieve maximum impact with limited capacity, loitering munitions and UCAVs could be an ideal solution. Acquisition and operational costs are inexpensive compared to COIN aircraft. Pilot training, maintenance, repair, fuel and associated expenses are significantly lower. Command and control for loitering munitions is also simplified, as only one to four soldiers are needed for operation, depending on the method of transport and launch, meaning a battalion can conduct close air support (CAS).
Adequate and actionable ISR requires aircraft with a high endurance, remaining airborne for several hours. Manned military aircraft have to return to base regularly for costly refuelling, which UCAVs do not have to do. The cheaper air time means that the UAVs can cover a wide area and rapidly respond to changing situations on the ground without costs compounding.
Non-state actors often operate in difficult-to-reach areas. Vast, remote areas of certain regions also make it difficult for ground troops to operate effectively, and traditional airstrikes can be slow and imprecise. By providing a constant, real-time stream of intelligence, UCAVs can help military forces to identify and track actors that use dense landscapes to their advantage.
A key capability of loitering munitions is fast, precision striking. Once launched, typically by canister, they can be directed to strike a target with a high degree of precision using GPS guidance. This is especially useful for minimising collateral damage and in situations where the target is an insurgent leader or a mobile group of fighters.
Over the past decade, ambushes and sabotage on convoys have resulted in gruesome outcomes for both civilians and security forces. Humanitarian aid, soldiers, diplomats, politicians and civilians travelling in a military convoy have been sporadically attacked by coordinated ambushes, improvised explosive devices (IED) or both. In 2021, an international ambassador in a central African nation was tragically killed in an UN convoy attack. Late last year, a convoy in a West African nation hit an IED, claiming the lives of 35 civilians.
Loitering munitions and UCAVs can be a vital tool in these situations. Their camera payloads can enhance intelligence gathering while their variety of weapon systems are able to immediately strike threats as an overmatch capability. Retreating threats can also be tracked to gather valuable intelligence and present an opportunity for a sortie to launch an offensive. The capability to identify and track threats could be especially useful for West African states, where kidnapping in rural areas is on the rise. Experts suggest that insurgents in West Africa are turning to kidnapping youth for forced recruitment in their ranks due to their recent losses. Rural areas close to the forests that house and hide these insurgents could greatly benefit from simple nearby air bases with small squadrons of UCAVs for rapid deployment.
The scourge of violent extremism is not limited to land either. All coastal states on the continent face threats in their waters, including trafficking, overfishing, illegal migration and piracy. The link between insurgency groups and maritime crime is a frequent topic of African maritime security roundtables, with experts suggesting the groups are participating in the illicit maritime trade of precious minerals and natural resources as a means of funding. Some African security analysts even suggest that international terrorist organisations may be providing resources to extremists along the East and Southern African coast. In March this year, two stateless dhows were seized with over a ton of various narcotics during a European Union (EU) routine patrol along the East African coast.
West Africa has been subjected to piracy and armed robberies in territorial waters and surrounding high seas for decades. Although the latest data indicates a notable decline in global piracy, the second highest number of incidents since 2021 has taken place on and off the West African coast. Loitering munitions can supply navies with a cost-effective option in operations requiring immediate action against highly dangerous threats while UCAVs can surveil vast stretches of coastal boarders for long periods of time, aiding maritime security forces in the surmounting task of securing their oceans.
Loitering munitions and UCAVs could also be used to support manned aircraft. Rotary wing aircraft in CAS, COIN and logistics operations in Africa are commonly fired upon by small arms. Due to the helicopter’s noisy engines, not much of the outside world is audible to pilots. Some pilots conducting missions in mountainous regions with thick vegetation find that they came under fire but were unaware as to when or where the attack happened. Small helicopters operating at low altitudes have even suffered mechanical failure from small arms fire, leading to an emergency landing.
As recently as this year, a South African Air Force Oryx transport helicopter in the Democratic Republic of Congo came under fire from a sniper, resulting in a casualty. Attack helicopters providing support is a costly necessity that could be conducted by a UCAV. If paired with existing radar technology mounted on the helicopter, threat detection could be greatly enhanced and even countered with an air-launched loitering munition.
Loitering munitions and UCAVs have the potential to be powerful new force multipliers for African militaries. They can provide rapid, cost-effective support in ISR, COIN and CAS missions conducted in challenging environments. Military might is not in itself sufficient to countering the complicated issue of terrorism. In the effort to safeguard the valuable lives of soldiers and civilians however, as these technologies become increasingly affordable, they could permit African militaries to achieve more with less.
Miles Chambers, Director of International Business Development, EDGE.