MONUSCO's edge - Unmanned aerial systems
‘The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.’ (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
As MONUSCO’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) take to the skies in their third year of operation the importance of their contribution to mission success is in no doubt. Often inaccurately referred to as ‘Drones’, these silent observers are remotely controlled by human pilots, situated in Ground Control Stations (GCS), many kilometers away from the aircraft itself. Routinely tasked to support the protection of civilians, monitor illegal Armed Groups and target humanitarian aid, UAS have proven to be part of the solution to an intractable set of problems. Firstly, how does one monitor a huge area of difficult terrain when there are very few roads and secondly, how does MONUSCO employ their limited resources in the right place at the right time? At least part of the answer lies with the efficient, prioritized use of UAS.
On several occasions UAS has responded to threats against civilian settlements by confirming or denying the location/existence of alleged attackers before directing MONUSCO’s precious forces to the scene. This saves time, energy and money whilst allowing ground forces to concentrate on what’s important and avoid unnecessary deployments into potentially dangerous situations.
The United Nations like many operators of UAS have realized that these systems are particularly suited to ‘Dull, Dirty and Dangerous’ tasks which would test the courage, patience and concentration of traditional manned aircrews, and at only a fraction of the cost. It is important to re-emphasize that all UAS, operated by the United Nations, are unarmed and intended for surveillance purposes only.
The service is provided through a unique collaboration between civilian contractors and military experts and is a model now being emulated in other UN missions. The contractors are responsible for the efficient, safe and reliable operation of the equipment whilst the military staff (United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and Ireland) take on the planning, scheduling and direction of each mission (approximately 520 per year).
Now that the UN has had a taste of what UAS has to offer there is a growing appetite for expansion and evolution. The current contract expires at the end of this year and the nature of the replacement is to be decided by open competition. Specifications for the new system describe a number of technical improvements including range and mission endurance, all of which should help us to develop and improve UAS provision. Whilst it is true that technical teething problems, the terrain and local meteorological conditions have limited UAS operations from time-to-time, it remains a success story which has supported the efforts of MONUSCO and, by extension, the long-term goals of peace and stability in the DRC.
Lt Col A J Kerbey (Tony), UAS Chief, MONUSCO