Kenya’s fight against small arms trafficking is bringing new technologies to the region. With help from the United States and Japan, Kenya is looking to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more colloquially referred to as drones — to monitor small arms smuggling. The announcement comes as other African countries, most of which struggle to meet their basic security needs, are contemplating the use of drones to enhance their security forces. Drone programs have cropped up in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, and South Africa and Tunisia are also suspected of possessing drones.
To date, the use of drones in the Global South has been limited. Earlier this year, and with a US$5 million grant from Google, the World Wildlife Fund announced plans to deploy drones over two African reserves in order to track poaching and protect endangered species. In Indonesia, scientists have been using drones to monitor orangutan populations and track deforestation — services that might have otherwise been impossible.
The announcement to introduce drones into Kenya for military purposes was made in late May 2013, as crime in the country is soaring. In particular, smugglers are thriving on small arms trading, a market that is fuelled by porous borders, corruption and weak governance. In Kenya, the government struggles to maintain a security sector adequate to address the country’s security problems. Earlier this month, the Kenyan government announced plans to hire an additional 10,000 police officers to “bolster security.”
With this in mind, drones may be able to provide Kenya, and other developing countries, with a way to ensure security where they might not be able to otherwise. The use of drones to supplement or enhance border security and domestic surveillance is certainly not new. The United States Department of Homeland Security has been purchasing the Predator-B UAV and deploying it along US borders since at least 2005. In the United Kingdom, UAVs were deployed to monitor security in and around the Olympic Games in 2012; there have also been plans to deploy UAVs to patrol the UK’s borders. And in 2012 the European Commission announced plans to implement a new security strategy that includes the use of UAVs to patrol A single Predator-B drone, such as those used by the U.S., has a flight time of 20-hours and can cover more than 1,500 kilometres in a single flight. These capabilities exceed those of manned aircraft and certainly those of border security officers, who must patrol either on foot or in a vehicle, often at great cost. Their surveillance capabilities also far exceed those of any other tool currently available to border protection agencies.
While the drones being developed and used in countries such as Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia are nowhere near this sophisticated, they still have enormous potential given the conditions they are being introduced into. For example, the drones being used for conservation in Kenya are capable of covering 10,000 acres (40 square kilometres) in a single flight; they are equipped with live camera feeds for the rangers on the ground and they carry thermal imaging for tracking poachers at night.
Of course, drones cannot arrest criminals and seize weapons themselves; they must be supplemented by human security officers. Yet, the advanced surveillance capabilities of drones allow security personnel to track smugglers and identify smuggling routes, potentially allowing security efforts to be specifically targeted.
Kenya shares a border of 200 kilometres with Ethiopia and 1,000 kilometres with Somalia, the world’s most well-known failed state. Border patrol is currently a joint effort by almost every arm of Kenya’s security sector: the Kenyan Army, the Rural Border Patrol Unit of the Administration Police, immigration officials, intelligence officers and anti-terrorism police units. Stemming the flow of weapons across porous borders also requires concentrated effort from the general population, whose tips are crucial to security efforts.
With the security sector stretched thin in an effort to meet Kenya’s security challenges, small arms smuggling continues to pose a significant threat. A few eyes in the sky might just provide the extra capacity that is needed.