UN using drones to monitor Congo border, fleet to grow this spring

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The United Nations’ peacekeeping forces may have boots on the ground in the war-torn region of the Congo, but they also have eyes in the sky.

The UN’s stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has employed a pair surveillance drones since the end of last year to monitor the eastern border of the country, using its cameras, heat signature and night vision technology to cover ground that the peacekeeping forces cannot reach. It marks the first time any such program with unmanned aircraft has been used by the UN.

“They provide a very good bang for the buck,” a UN official told FoxNews.com “When you are thinly spread in the region, these UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) provide an extra set of eyes for our peacekeepers in the DRC.”

The UN has actually leased the drones from Italian company Selex ES, opting for a contract with the company to operate the two Falco UAVs at a cost of $15 million per year, or roughly one percent of the mission’s yearly budget.

The pair of drones was launched last December in the eastern city of Goma, a spot occupied by rebel forces the year before.

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"The drones... will allow us to have reliable information about the movement of populations in the areas where there are armed groups," UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous said at the time of the launch. "We will survey the areas where there are armed groups, and we can control the frontier."

The Falco drones coast along the eastern border at a low altitude monitoring for militia and rebel forces that might be trying to flee or illegally enter the DRC. The UAVs can also look into thick forested areas using heat signature technology to find any guerrilla fighters looking for cover. The drones also monitor gold mines in the region to quell theft of the precious metal.

The eastern border is an important one to monitor in regard to DRC conflicts since there have been allegations that neighboring countries Rwanda and Uganda have supported groups such as the M23 rebels.

Some rebel groups have surrendered in recent months, likely due to the difficulty of escaping along the border, but it was not immediately clear if that was a direct result of the drones.

Some have said that while the drones have had a somewhat positive effect in the region, they are not a miracle solution.

“The UAVs are not a silver bullet for ending the war,” Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst for the Enough Project told FoxNews.com. “The bulk of that, much more, must be done on that front to sanction conflict gold smugglers that fund armed groups and address the hard governance issues in Congo.

“That said, the psychological effect of the UAVs is already being felt in Congo,” she added. “We are getting a number of reports of rebel fighters, particularly from the FDLR [Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda], who are worried about the drones. The problem is that there are still not very many UAVs, and the UN lacks a lot of the human intelligence to follow up leads. So it's still a work in progress.”

Officials for the UN and the Congo mission maintain that the program, while still new, has proven to be an effective deterrent and helps them to cover more ground. In the coming weeks, they plan to launch three more drones, bringing the fleet to five, which will enable them to patrol the region 24/7 and cover a wider swath of land that the 155-mile range near their base in Goma, giving the 20,000-plus peacekeepers the ability to cover more ground.

An issue often associated with drone programs is that they can be used for illegal monitoring or weaponized for aerial assaults.

“They [UAVs] are unarmed and will stay that way,” a UN official said to FoxNews.com. “We have them for a very different use than in other theaters of operation. We have them simply as cameras to provide our peacekeepers to cover more ground.”