by Kevin Knodell. He is a staff writer at War is Boring, a regular contributor at Northwestmilitary.com and one of the authors of War Is Boring: A True War Comics Collection. Follow him on Twitter at @KJKnodell
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It’s an old joke — a reference to the their blue headgear and their supposed cowardice in the face of danger. It’s a criticism that’s not entirely fair. Missions are frequently short on air assets, have shoddy communications gear and lack spare parts for the equipment they do have. Blue berets often struggle to protect themselves, let alone keep the peace or protect civilians. Fair or not, it’s led many to be skeptical of the blue beret.
But, that doesn’t stop the international community from authorizing missions on the regular. The annual U.N. peacekeeping budget is a little more than $7 billion. The United States is the largest financial backer, paying almost 30 percent. Today, more than 123,000 soldiers and police from 128 countries operate under the blue banner in support of 16 ongoing U.N. peacekeeping operations (“Financing peacekeeping“, United Nations).
Veterans of U.N. peacekeeping missions have long noted problems in the field. Hiccups with communications and logistics are often more than just frustrating – the consequences have been fatal. Today, many members of the peacekeeping community are pushing for reform.
In 2014 an international panel of security experts and retired military officers, funded by the Danish government, trotted the globe exploring how technology could help U.N. peacekeepers deal with some of the world’s worst conflicts. They talked to everyone from soldiers on the ground in war zones to tech gurus in start-up offices. They wanted to document the sorts of problems peacekeepers face, and figure out what tools they can use to overcome them.
In February 2015, the panelists published their findings in the form of a 144-page report (PDF). They concluded that peacekeeping missions need to catch up with the information age—and fast. The panel urged the U.N. to train “digital peacekeepers” and arm them with cheap, high-tech devices. That could mean peacekeepers monitoring Twitter for news, carrying smart phones and using apps to help identify unexploded land mines as well as some more far-out ideas like wearing visors streaming real-time information pulled from the Internet. And the panelists want peacekeepers to use drones. Lots of them.
But that future could be a long ways off. The panelists blasted the current state of U.N. peacekeeping. “Missions frequently lack a wide range of the very capabilities now considered by most militaries, law enforcement agencies and international organizations to be minimally necessary to operate effectively,” the report stated (page 3).
It asserted that the gap between what troops are supposed to have and what they do have is “so pronounced,” that it has discouraged richer countries with the most technological, logistical and financial capabilities from contributing troops or material. Most U.N. peacekeeping missions today depend on troops from developing countries. These armies struggle with logistics. Even the most professional of them often lack airlift capabilities to bring in armored vehicles and adequate equipment by themselves. Perhaps the most serious consequence has been problems with medical evacuations owing to a lack of helicopters and qualified medical personnel. “[W]ith few exceptions, missions struggle to deliver critical urgent care within the ‘golden hour’ — the 60-minute period beginning at the moment of injury that represents an internationally recognized time period within which casualties should receive lifesaving and urgent life sustaining care,” the report warned (page 41).
Though hi-tech gadgets can help peacekeepers, they’re no substitute for helicopters, heavy equipment and fuel. Logistics and resources are at the core of any military endeavor. The report found first and foremost that the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations needs to address basic operational needs.
Ironically, the hesitance of rich countries to provide missions with necessary logistical and technological help has led to a cycle in which troops on the ground consistently lack basic equipment and struggle to enforce their mandates. That’s created a perception that peacekeeping missions are doomed to fail and that current troops – mostly from countries in Africa and Asia – lack either the competency or the resolve to do their jobs. “This narrative has […] eroded the political and financial willingness of member states to ensure the peacekeepers in the field can operate at a level at least as sophisticated as any spoiler they may encounter,” the report suggested (page 5). But that hasn’t stopped rich countries from expecting poor countries contribute troops to these missions.
Even so, Peacekeepers in the field have often proved resilient and creative. In South Sudan, a lightly equipped U.N. peacekeeping force with troops drawn mostly from developing countries has saved thousands of lives. It created safe havens for civilians when civil war enveloped the country in December 2013. Blue helmets immediately opened bases for people fleeing both government and rebel death squads. They escorted refugees around the country in re-purposed trucks and buses while keeping tabs on threatened communities. Today, as government and rebel fighters continue skirmishing and accruing arms, blue helmeted troops maintain civilian protection sites scattered around the country with modest resources. However, they could save more lives — and better protect themselves — if they had better tools. The panelists don’t seem to think that providing peacekeepers with modern equipment such a lofty expectation. “Most modern technologies are neither too expensive nor too sophisticated to be within the reach of peacekeepers,” the report asserted (page 5).
Bombs litter today’s war zones. In modern warfare, terrorists and guerrilla groups who can’t fight an opposing army directly frequently resort to improvised explosives and booby-traps. That doesn’t even include the countless mines and un-exploded ordinance that conventional armies and rebel groups often leave behind over decades of conflict. It’s a common problem — and danger — for U.N. missions. Yet the panel found that missions have routinely sent peacekeepers into heavily mined and booby-trapped territory without proper equipment and training to protect themselves or neutralize explosives. The panelists said that’s unacceptable. “Where IEDs are an identified threat, all convoys should deploy with the minimum ability to self-recover, together with sapper pioneering teams equipped with heavy vehicle extraction capability and organizational level repair and remediation technologies,” the report recommended (page 48).
The panel suggested that convoys operating in areas known to be heavily laden with explosives should make use of mine-protected armored vehicles, rather than the vulnerable trucks that are regularly make up these convoys. Ugandan troops with the African Union force in Somalia have used mine-protected vehicles to shield themselves from insurgents with relative success. These vehicles debuted during the Rhodesian Bush Wars, developed by South African arms industry. They’re not rare in Africa.
But armored vehicles can be large, cumbersome and difficult to fly into remote locations. And spare parts can be difficult to track down. Many contingents get around in low cost, easy-to-transport pickup trucks. Peacekeepers have to be very deliberate about how – and when – to deploy heavy equipment. To make up for that the panel also suggested some simple, tech-based ways the peacekeepers can identify and protect themselves from bombs. The report noted that soldiers and police on the ground could use mobile apps to assess threats, in particular the U.N.’s open-source Landmine and Explosive Remnants of War Safety app — available to anyone for free (iOS / Android). The app tells users where known minefields are. It also helps users identify explosives, spot telltale signs of hidden bombs and allows them to report the locations of any explosives they come across directly to the U.N. Mine Action Service.
The panel singled out peacekeepers in Lebanon for effectively using this and other apps to help them in their mission. The panelists also proposed extensive use of tactical drones to help troops spot danger and scout ahead. “[C]onvoys may be equipped with small tactical UAVs as mobile intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms to survey choke points and hazard areas along the route as needed to enhance overall security,” the report suggested (page 46).
Blue helmets have already started using drones. During one field visit, the panelists interviewed a U.N. police officer that frequently used a miniature drone to assist with investigations. The peacekeeper provided them video of an investigation of a helicopter crash site.
Drones and Surveillance
In January 2013, the U.N. Security Council authorized the controversial deployment of drones to support peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The drones monitored rebel groups such as the brutal March 23 Movement. It was the world body’s first foray into robotic surveillance. But before the drones even reached the Congo, leaders in the Ivory Coast suggested that the U.N. consider using drones to augment the peacekeeping force in that country.
The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast reduced its forces in 2013, with more proposed cuts coming this year. The security situation has improved enough for the blue berets to continue a phased withdrawal but drones could help the shrinking force keep watch over its fragile security gains “This would help us to cope better with the difficulty we face in the west of the country and the heavily forested border area with Liberia which is very difficult to monitor and an ideal sanctuary for armed men,” mission spokesperson Sylvie van den Wildenberg told The Guardian. Peacekeepers around the world are definitely interested in using more drones to aid them in monitoring difficult environments.
But intelligence-gathering is a touchy subject in U.N. circles. Peace missions are supposed to be impartial. If peacekeepers covertly gather information, warring parties could perceive it as meddling. In 1993, U.N. officials in New York admonished Canadian general Roméo Dallaire when U.N. troops in Rwanda planned to raid weapons caches in Kigali discovered through help from an informant. The U.N. ordered Dallaire to stand down. Hutu extremists later used those same caches to commit the Rwandan Genocide and kill several of Dallaire’s troops.
In a community that already views gathering intelligence with skepticism, introducing drones is a huge leap forward. And there’s another hurdle — drones scare people. Pop culture regularly depicts drones as the embodiment of the surveillance state and the erosion of human rights. But countries and organizations all over the world are already using drones in increasing numbers. And their use isn’t limited purely to fighting terrorists and militants. Mexico recently began using drones to help protect endangered sea animals.
“Enabling a peacekeeping mission to use technology or other advanced means to gather information does not violate the basic principles of peacekeeping impartiality and state sovereignty,” the panel concluded. “[P]eacekeepers do not lose their impartiality simply because they are better aware of what is going on in their mission space.” (page 5).
The report conceded that drones and other surveillance technology can lead to abuses and would need substantial oversight. But ultimately, the panelists seemed to conclude that drones are here to stay — and that peacekeepers need them. The panel recommended the U.N. authorize the creation of a new kind of operation — called “Special Technical Missions” — specializing in technology and intelligence-gathering. “[The STMs would] enable the Security Council to call on, organize and legitimize the use of technical audio, visual, monitoring and surveillance technologies, ground and airborne sensors and other technical means […] to keep up with events on the ground in rapidly changing circumstances, inform their decision-making, prioritize action and aid in planning,” the report concluded (page 57).
The panel wants the U.N. to operate more drones. Like, now. “[The U.N. should] make maximum use of UAVs, greater use of smaller, tactical-level assets is required […],” the panelists wrote (pages 57 and 115). “[…] [m]iniature UAVs should be incorporated into standard requirements without delay.” (pages 54,57 and 115). And the report called for tracking devices for vehicles and heavy equipment, so that commanders can monitor their troops’ whereabouts. The devices could help in recovering stolen vehicles and heavy weaponry if rebels or bandits try to make off with them—a problem that has plagued missions around the world. “Real-time safety and security information is not a luxury, but rather, a life-saving necessity,” the panelists concluded (pages 6 and 34).
Communication is a constant problem for peacekeepers. It’s inevitable—troops come from all over the world and speak different languages. But the panel asserted that the problem peacekeeping troops most commonly report is their dependence on different sets of incompatible radio equipment, even when the U.N. — and not the troops’ own armies — provide the radios. “[This renders] communications between contingents, and even between members of a mixed patrol, difficult,” the report added (page 34). Though the panelists recommended that hi-frequency radio should remain the backbone of operational communications, they suggested peacekeepers make greater use of mobile communications gear connected to the Internet.
They want U.N. personnel — civilian and military alike — to have greater access to these devices. Regardless of their rank. “A number of mobile applications now exist for individuals to file travel plans, automatically communicate GPS locations on a periodic basis, and alert base stations or headquarters when they are overdue at their destinations,” the report stated (page 27).
The panel also wants peacekeepers to be social media savvy. Not just for communication, but to keep tabs on local political leaders, combatants and personalities. Warring factions regularly use Twitter and Facebook to make announcements, recruit fighters and spread propaganda. Monitoring social media is a hot-button topic that comes with a lot of concerns about personal privacy, freedom of expression and human rights. But the panel insisted that ignoring social media is a massive mistake, and hardly jeopardizes the peacekeepers’ neutrality. “No partiality is shown to peacekeepers in providing missions with the same access to information that people around the globe can readily and openly access […],” the report asserted (pages 5 and 23).
The panel also explored more ambitious technological advancements, suggesting individual peacekeepers wear Internet-connected visors that transmit and receive real-time mission updates. But Western military forces that have developed advanced battlefield communications devices have been slow to adopt them. The devices frequently prove expensive, prone to power issues in remote areas and become obsolete before they’re fielded. Adding more devices can make a mission more complex, rather than simplifying it. However, much of what the report suggests isn’t terribly expensive or hard to achieve — if the U.N.’s member states are willing to put a little bit of faith in the soldiers they continually send to the world’s most dangerous war zones.