Thursday, June 30, 2011

U.S. drone targets two leaders of Somali group allied with al-Qaeda

OPERATION RESTORE HOPE began on December 8, 1992 with the Unified Task Force (UNITAF). UNITAF included U.S. and allied troops working together in one task force, but under U.S. and not UN direction. RESTORE HOPE tried to establish peace between the two warring Somali warlords General Muhammed Farah Aideed of the Habr Gidr subclan and Ali Mahdi Mohamed of the Abgal subclan in Mogadishu.

The failure of this operation was depicted in the movie "Blackhawk Down". There is one part in the movie about a third of the way through were the Somalis take out a US Blackhawk with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) shot to the tail rotor. The movie does not explain the real significance of this tactic.

US Blackhawk helicopters are amazing aircraft but for all of their ability, they are not armored. Why then did the Somalis shoot at the tail rotor rather than the much larger fuselage?

In the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Soviets brought a weapon the battle-hardened Afghanis had never had to face; the Mi-24 helicopter. This is a huge gun ship and it is heavily armored. The rifles the Afghanis had would not stop the Mi-24 which lead Osama bin Laden to obtain Stinger missiles from the US through the CIA. The Afghanis learned firing the missiles or RPGs at the tail rotor had the highest probability of downing the helicopter. A helicopter becomes aerodynamically unstable without the tail rotor.

The events in "Blackhawk Down" therefore show a tactic that was developed by the mujahideen (the pre-cursor to al Qaeda) being used in Somalia. The following quote from today's Washington Post should therefore come as no surprise:

"The airstrike makes Somalia at least the sixth country where the United States is using drone aircraft to conduct lethal attacks, joining Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. And it comes as the CIA is expected to begin flying armed drones over Yemen in its hunt for al-Qaeda operatives."

Targeting terrorists from the air versus the ground was favored by the Clinton Administration. On Aug. 7, 1998, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were bombed by terrorists, leaving 258 people dead and more than 5,000 injured.

In response, the U.S. launched cruise missiles on Aug. 20, 1998, striking a terrorism training complex in Afghanistan and destroying a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Khartoum, Sudan, that reportedly produced nerve gas. Both targets were believed to have been financed by wealthy Islamic radical Osama bin Laden, who was allegedly behind the embassy bombings as well as an international terrorism network targeting the United States. (source: Info Please database).

Unlike President Clinton, President Obama does not have to rely on cruise missiles that introduce the possibility of striking civilians (often referred to as "collateral damage"). President Obama can rely on a much more accurate weapon, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The picture at the top is of the current MQ-9 Reaper that is replacing the earlier Predator model. The Reaper was intended from the start to be a hunter/killer unlike the Predator. It can stay on station longer with more ordnance at higher altitudes. UAVs also means a President can skirt the political hot potato of the War Powers Act. A limited military operation (i.e. using drones) seems to fall outside the purview of Congressional approval (at least according to the politicians). Drones, like cruise missiles before, provides the ability to conduct strikes at targets without risking the lives of US troops (as well as risking a President's ability to get re-elected).

As the Washington Post points out, we are now shooting targets in six different countries. With the exception of Pakistan, none of the others have nuclear weapons. We are also supposedly partnered with Pakistan, although striking ground targets with drones is probably a quick way to wear out a welcome.

It will be interesting to see if the Obama Administration starts to use drones in other scenarios such as Syria or Iran.

The Washington Post


Quimbob said...

shooting the tail rotor - Isn't that how Kirk Douglas took out the helicopter in Lonely Are The Brave?

Bob Baylor said...

I never saw that movie but it could be where the mujahideen got the idea. Plagiarism is the greatest form of flattery!