The United States recently agreed to provide the Kenyan National Defense Forces with small drones for collecting intelligence against al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups elsewhere in East Africa. It is part of $41.4 million package that includes trucks, communications equipment and rifles for troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti that are operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
The BBC Radio Focus Africa program asked me on 21 July 2012 to comment on the provision of drones to the Kenyan military. I emphasized that the eight Raven model drones going to Kenya only have the capacity to collect information. They are not capable of launching missiles. In fact, once soldiers have been trained in their use, they are launched by throwing them into the air. They are about the size of a model airplane with a wingspan of 4.5 feet.
The United States has had intelligence collecting drones in use over Somalia for many years. Their use in the region will be nothing new. In mid-2011, the United States employed for the first time drones that could launch missiles; there were reportedly several additional drone missile attacks early in 2012. The drones provided to the Kenyan National Defense Force are not able to launch missiles.
This counterterrorism assistance is part of a program for assisting countries in East Africa and the Horn that dates back to the Bush Administration when the program was called the East African Counterterrorism Initiative. That early program totaled about $100 million in assistance.
The host of the BBC program was concerned that the provision of these drones might cause Kenya, the United States and their allies in the region to lose the hearts and mind war. I disagreed with this suggestion. If Kenya is able to improve its intelligence capacity in combating al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, I don't see how this impacts negatively its image in the region. The use of missle-firing drones is another matter. Depending on the circumstances and frequency of their use, they can become a negative factor in the hearts and mind war. The country using them must then decide if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But in the case of the drones for Kenya, this point is moot.