“Unidentified violent object.” In just three words, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou – author of Théorie du Drone, (Theory of the drone) – manages to define the drone, a new weapon of war. At first glance, this technological innovation could be used to reduce human casualties.
However, a UN panel of experts has brought to light a worrying event, in which a drone reportedly “shot down a human target” in Libya in March 2020. The problem is that the drone wasn’t being controlled by any human at the time.
The autonomy of these technological gems raises many questions and suggests the advent of a new type of warfare. Erick Sourna Loumtouang – a senior research officer at the National Centre of Education, a research institution under the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation in Yaoundé, Cameroon – answers some of our questions.
According to a report by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya dated 8 March 2021, an armed Libyan drone “shot down a human target” without receiving an order in March 2020. Does this open a new page in the history of warfare?
Erick Sourna Loumtouang : The situation reported by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya reaffirms a trend in security that has arisen since the end of the Cold War, that of the robotisation and automation of war. This revolution in military affairs has seen the emergence and increasing proliferation of machines in theatres of armed conflict.
Within the context of the war on terrorism, several parts of the world have become experimental fields where new methods and knowledge of violence are being implemented and updated.
So far, unmanned armed vehicles (drones and other robots) have been used in a semi-autonomous mode, almost always with human assistance. The report by the UN expert groups on Libya shows that a milestone has been reached. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a drone has had the power to select and eliminate human targets in a real situation. The era of computational and algorithmic sovereignty is dawning, and brings with it, ethical abuses. For example, an algorithm will now be responsible for someone’s death.
Although completely automated drones have existed for several years in the UK, US and Turkey, the Libyan theatre is the only recorded case in which a human was eliminated by a self-automated machine. However, it is entirely possible that drones may have been tested in other operational theatres, such as in Syria and Iraq. This is proof that the massive proliferation of drone technologies, due to global competition, will undoubtedly lead to a tenfold increase in violence and obvious ethical abuses.
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The drone mentioned in the report is the Turkish army’s Kargu 2, which was also used against the Islamic State in Syria and along Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Iran, where Ankara is fighting the PKK.
The US and France have recently shown a willingness to leave African conflict theatres. Will drones be a way for these powers to maintain some form of presence without mobilising human resources on the African continent?
These two great powers’ deployment on African soil is a long-standing fact that wavers between visibility and invisibility. The attack on the World Trade Center marked a strategic turning point, as it pushed back the limits of US sovereignty on a global scale and marked the inauguration of a new modus operandi. The world’s policemen, in an attempt to “occupy without invading”, have created a network of drone bases which, since 2001, doubled from 13 to 27 listed bases in 2019.
Operationally, the superpower has moved from detentions without trial to executions without trial. Former President Obama mostly employed killer drones to fight jihadist groups in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, as he felt that it was best to neutralise the terrorists in their sanctuary before they had a chance to attack civilians.
In the face of widespread protests over US drone strikes in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, President Trump, his successor, pledged to end these forever wars. The Republican’s record clearly shows that he launched more drone strikes than his predecessor did. This is due to an increase in US drone bases.
France also has a number of drone bases in the country. It has supplied troops to Operation Barkhane, which is dedicated to liberating northern Mali, which has fallen into the hands of the jihadists. In this hostile area, drones are deployed for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and to conduct air strikes on jihadist targets.
While both powers have stated that they intend to leave the African theatres, neither power has – for the time being – given any details on the timing and modus operandi of their departure.
France has announced that it is suspending joint operations with the Malian army following the ruling junta’s coup d’état, but it continues to commit its troops to the fight against terrorism by using drones to neutralise armed groups. [Ed. note: France has since agreed to rejoin operations with Malian forces]
The US also continues to use drones in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and in Somalia, where several jihadist groups are deployed. As the UAV system does not require a large presence of ground troops, it is certain that France and the US, even once they have left, will continue to use their unmanned aircraft in these areas, either for individual operations or in cooperation with local partners.
How might using these autonomous armed drones change African armed conflicts?
Based on the way that they are used to fight terrorism in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and the Horn of Africa, I would say that drones have modernised imperial practices. The major powers carry out military surveillance and strike operations in Africa, sometimes without the approval of parliaments, authorities and populations. This lack of transparency does not prevent abuses, particularly those perpetrated against civilians.
To date, only a few of the continent’s armies use drones and are therefore dependent on data and intelligence provided by Western armies. This increases African countries’ strategic dependence on Western armies.
While the US and the UK, the major Western drone manufacturers, have so far imposed restrictions on the marketing of their aircraft, the proliferation of drone technologies has facilitated access to these devices via other countries such as China, Russia, Turkey and India.
Nigeria, for example, uses Chinese killer drones to fight against Boko Haram and may well use these unmanned aircraft for law enforcement purposes. This could mean a real step backwards for democracy. It is also believed that Boko Haram uses tactical mini-drones in the Lake Chad Basin.
If terrorist groups make use of more sophisticated aircraft to carry out suicide attacks, as the Islamic State organisation is already doing, it could result in increased civilian casualties on the continent.
It is clear that within the context of fighting terrorism, where it is not always possible to send troops to certain areas, drones will become more commonplace. In Libya, this drone war has raised the question of whether the government has been able to control this tense political situation since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.
The unprecedented use of autonomous drones reveals a failure to use them responsibly. There is no guarantee that the use of these devices will protect against possible errors in target selection. The problem with drones is that they are susceptible to attack and misuse, just like any other computer system. The increasing use of autonomous devices also raises the issue of liability.
When an autonomous drone is used, who is responsible for a homicide? Is it the software designer or the state or non-state actor using the equipment? The proliferation of drones in Africa will undoubtedly open up ethical debates on assassinations, and on the regulation of such practices under international law and the law of war.
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