In recent years the United Nations (UN) began to support peacekeeping operations in Africa with unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as part of an undergoing ‘technological revolution’ aimed to make peacekeeping more effective even at times of growing tension and funding constraints.

Led by UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous, the new trend has introduced multiple types of drones deployed with the UN stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) and Mali (MINUSMA). Additional deployments are now recommended for Darfur, and South Sudan.

According to Ladsous, UAVs do a better job of protecting civilians, because they provide real-time pictures of situations as they develop on the ground. "You can act faster and more decisively," he said. Drones can save lives, by improving the peacekeepers' security, by providing prior warnings on enemy ambush or attack, and, by staying on station for longer periods, increasing the security and confidence of citizens.

"Our UAVs are unarmed; they are used for surveillance purpose only," said Ladsous, "It is now becoming a relatively common tool. We started just over two years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But we are now deploying surveillance drones of every denomination — tactical and strategic. We have deployed them in Mali and the Central African Republic. Of course, I would very much want to deploy some in South Sudan, because that is the key for us to perform better."

"We get much better information about what is happening on the ground. We can see groups on the prowl. We now have a knowledge of what is happening on the ground and how to mitigate or to proactively intervene.”

“If we are deaf, if we are blind, how can we do our job? It’s simply a matter of acquiring the right tools. And I think member states are widely recognizing this." Such tools used by the peacekeepers include drones and surveillance aerostats. Such aerostats were recently deployed in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui. They carry sensors, daylight, and thermal cameras. Other aerostats deployed in northern Mali will soon be augmented by counter-battery radars, to allow accurate and timely counterfire against mortar and rocket attacks that often harass the peacekeeper's bases.

"There is less fear today, than two or three years ago, when people didn’t know much about UAVs." Ladsous mentioned "We have learned more about these systems, as we make progress. It’s not so much about intelligence gathering as information gathering. We have to be aware of what is happening around us.”

While military operators of drones often tend to deploy such assets in weaponized configurations, Ladsous clearly states that his drones are operating strictly in surveillance missions. "We make it very clear that UAVs are for surveillance purposes only. They are unarmed and will remain unarmed because the fact that they are remote-controlled creates potential risks. We don’t want to go into that. Attack helicopters, of course, have very precise rules of engagement. They step in or fly in under specific circumstances and always under the direct control of the force commander. And we apply very rigorous procedures."

In fact, drones and attack helicopters proved highly effective in DRC and Mali and are recommended to operate as a ‘package’ supporting other peacekeeping missions across Africa. Among attack helicopters supporting UN peacekeepers in Africa where South African Denel Rooivalk and Dutch Apaches, that withdrew after several months, following the loss of one of the Apaches in Mali. In Mali, such assets are supporting the ‘International Brigade’, a muscular ‘peace enforcer’ supporting the MINUSMA mission.

In 2013 the UN leased five Falco UAVs from Selex ES, a subsidiary of the Italian Leonardo group. The UN leased the Falcos for three years and deployed them to Goma, in Eastern Congo, to help monitor armed groups operating along Congo's border zone with Rwanda and Uganda. Though the UN has been careful to present the deployment as temporary and confined to the DRC, it was a turning point in UN peace missions. In their first year of operation, the Falco drones suffered some setbacks during their deployment in Goma, although the overall mission is considered a success. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the drones have proved useful in providing peacekeepers in the region “responsive, controlled, and timely source of information, particularly regarding supplementing the force's intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts against the illegal activities of armed groups."

Operating in the tropical weather, over thick forests and rugged terrain, was not a simple mission. The scarcity of roads on Congo's eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda made the control of this resource-rich territory, an important mission for MONUSCO.

The Malian Government also approved the operation of unarmed drones by the UN Peacekeepers; the first unit to operate such systems was a Swedish intelligence unit with 250 personnel. They operate their AAI/Textron Systems’ Shadow 200 Tactical UAVs from Camp Noble near Timbuktu. UAVs are in great demand in Mali, where the Swedish unit performed twice as large a flying time, compared with their previous mission in Afghanistan.

Two operational models are implemented in African peacekeeping missions. The Italian drones in DRC are operated by the contractor, while the Swedish drones are operated and supported by Swedish military personnel. Going forward, two European companies - Thales UK and Airbus Defense & Space are were selected to deploy larger drone to Mali – the Heron I and Hermes 900. Both are larger, heavier, Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) type drones that can fly longer and higher missions and carry several payloads. These drones will enable peacekeepers to receive drone support on missions extending over day and night, at longer range from their bases. Using advanced sensors, such as ground surveillance and synthetic aperture radars, the new drones will be able to conduct missions under all-weather conditions, maintaining visibility even through the thick tropical cloud cap.

Later this year, the German forces will deploy a detachment of Heron I UAVs to Gao, in South-Eastern Mali. Leased from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) these drones will be operated in Mali by Airbus Defense & Space, in a similar operational concept practiced in Afghanistan since 2010. Similar to the Swedish concept, the Herons will also be operated by German military personnel. The 18-month deployment will begin in November 2016. The French Air Force has already demonstrated the capabilities of the Heron in the Saharan desert, operating the Harfang, a variant of Heron I in neighboring Niger since 2013.

By leasing the Herons, rather than committing its drones, the Bundeswehr maintains the high availability and operational flexibility of its drone fleet, regarding contract duration. Moreover, the leased units are fully compatible and interoperable within NATO. Other Heron I systems are already in central Africa by the French Air Force.

Another deployment of UAVs The next phase for UN drone operations will is expected to select another supplier for UAVs to succeed the Falco drones in Gome. The new tender calls for medium altitude, long endurance drone to replace the current tactical drone. The winner will receive a contract to supply a UAV system supply comprised of up to five units, two ground control systems and support. As unmanned systems are becoming part of peacekeeping operations, nations delivering such assets are claiming to become ‘technology contributing countries,' just as the countries sending troops are recognized (and compensated) as ‘troop contributing countries.' Some may support a detachment of drones by service members, while others, would opt for sending the systems and hire contractors to operate them. Some worry it might exacerbate the problem of ‘two-tier peacekeeping’ – that is, expand the technological gap between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ countries.

As peace operations seek to become better technologically equipped, leading countries are needed to assist and mentor the peacekeepers unaccustomed to advanced technology.