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Kenya buys Sh1bn pilotless aircraft in war on Al Shabaab

A Mikado drone used by the German military flies at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. PHOTO | AFP
A Mikado drone used by the German military flies at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. PHOTO | AFP 

Kenya is buying a Sh1 billion state-of-the-art military arsenal from the United States in the latest of effort to boost the country’s combat capabilities against terrorism.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), popularly known as a drone, is billed as Kenya’s biggest counter-terrorism weapon that the country will use against dangerous groups such as Somalia-based Al Shabaab who recently murdered an unknown number of Kenyan soldiers in a midnight ambush.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) opened the lid on the Kenya-US weapons trade in a report released on Monday.

The pilotless aircraft, dubbed ScanEagle, will enable Kenyan security organs to conduct real-time surveillance on Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorists alongside other major crime scenes inside Kenya’s borders.

“ScanEagle was ordered by the Kenyan government at a cost of $9.86 million (Sh1 billion),” said Sipri military expenditure programme director Samuel Perlo-Freeman.

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“Presumably, it is intended to boost the Armed Forces’ surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities,” he added, meaning the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) could deploy the drone in neighbouring Somalia to gather information about terrorists in their hideouts and to stage pre-emptive attacks. The aircraft is set to arrive in September.

KDF spokesman Colonel David Obonyo Wednesday declined to comment on the matter insisting that the government does not make public its military purchases. 

Islamist militants have recently unleashed terror on several Kenyan towns, leaving a trail of deaths and spooking tourists, denying the country the crucial forex inflows.

Security experts say the drone could also be used to execute precision guided attacks on the militants, track their communication and possibly foil the training of new recruits.

This would place Kenya in the league of nations that have turned to drones to combat organised crime, including the United States, which has over the years increased its use of unmanned aircraft in war under President Barack Obama.

The Sipri report indicates that Kenya and Cameroon are the only African nations that have ordered the ScanEagle – a product of Insitu, a subsidiary of giant US aircraft maker Boeing.

The ScanEagle is currently in use by a number of countries including Britain, Australia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and Netherlands, according to Sipri.

Security experts say the drone might just be what the doctor ordered for Kenya’s military operations in tumultuous Somalia as it facilitates a coordinated and smart approach to terrorism.

“This will enable consistency in monitoring known Al Shabaab infiltration routes into Kenya as well as criminal gangs smuggling commodities across the common border,” said a Nairobi-based security expert Andrew Franklin.

“The real time nature of data collection would allow for quicker reaction by trained and properly organised security forces and issue advance warnings of planned attacks,” he said.

The ScanEagle will use infrared cameras with night vision capabilities to capture still and moving images and relay them to control centres for action.

Nairobi has recently been keen to strengthen its security ties with Washington in the face of growing terrorism threats.

The East African nation has suffered a spate of deadly bomb and gun attacks on civilians and soldiers by militants who are demanding removal of Kenyan troops from war-torn Somalia.

Kenya last year got military aid from the United States in form of a Cessna 208 caravan aircraft worth $10.5 million (Sh1 billion), shortly after Mr Obama’s July visit for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

The aircraft, together with the drone, will be deployed to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

Mr Franklin reckons that the drone would help avert attacks such as the one at El Adde where militants killed Kenyan soldiers in an ambush.

The army has in the past been faulted over its conduct in crime scenes, including at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall and last year’s deadly attack at Garissa University College.

The ScanEagle, which is 1.5 metres-long , can fly for up to 20 hours non-stop, and can be deployed on both land and maritime operations.

In 2012, the ScanEagle was deployed in the successful rescue mission of an American ship captain, Richard Phillips, from Somali pirates.

Mr Franklin said operating the drone does not require advanced skills, meaning it should not take the Kenyan military long to master its deployment.

“Operators do not require very advanced or sophisticated technical skills either for takeoffs or vehicle recovery. However, operators must understand the parameters of their missions (i.e. what is it they are looking for).”

The unmanned aircraft comes with its catapult launcher (Mark 4 launcher), recovery equipment, ground control stations, video exploitation system, training devices and spare kits.

Kenya’s order for the drone was inked last year under the US Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.

“Work will be performed in Bingen, Washington (50 per cent); and Nanyuki, Kenya (50 per cent) and is expected to be completed in September 2016,” the US defence department says on its website.

Kenya’s security organs have recently raced to boost their military firepower and intelligence to combat emerging threats like terrorism, arms smuggling and drugs trafficking.

In 2014, for instance, the government awarded telecommunications firm Safaricom a tender to set up a security surveillance system at a cost of Sh14.9 billion.

The system aims to link all security agencies — military and police — electronically, making it easy to share information and direct operations.

Nairobi has also struck a deal with US-based College of Computing, Mathematical and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland whose officials were expected to offer Kenyan officials technical expertise in drone technology.

The military in 2014 bought 18 self-propelled guns and 15 armoured personnel carriers (APC) from Serbia at a cost of Sh2.6 billion, according to Sipri.

Last year, Kenya expanded its APC stockpile with the purchase of 30 carriers from China at a cost of Sh7.9 billion to be used by police for patrols.

Mr Franklin, however, cautioned that for the drone to yield the expected results, Kenya’s security organs will have to share intelligence seamlessly besides making the chain of command clear-cut to avoid delays in response time in the event of a crime.

“The ScanEagle on its own cannot fill all existing gaps in our border control efforts; the lack of properly trained and equipped Administration Police units along our border with Somalia are strategic deficiencies that must be addressed with urgency,” said Mr Franklin.

A number of US drones have been captured in Iraq, exposing the weakness of the unmanned vehicles while critics have faulted their use citing intrusion into people’s privacy.

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