Technology for Peacekeeping: Tools of the Trade?

By Walter Dorn | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

UN peacekeepers are deployed in some of the world's most dangerous though less-covered conflict zones, including the Congo, Haiti, and Lebanon. Yet they are poorly equipped. Many available technologies could help them monitor conflicts and arms embargoes, carry out early warning, and maintain the situational awareness needed to identify threats and support proactive peacekeeping.

As observers and supervisors of peace agreements, peacekeepers rely on "information power" more than military power. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that they would be provided with modern tools to do their job properly. But despite a commercial sensor revolution, UN peacekeepers have had little access to monitoring and surveillance technologies. Ironically, inexpensive high-zoom digital cameras, web cameras, and camcorders are now common household items. Motion detectors are used in home alarm systems to alert householders to potential intruders, and sensors are found in sliding supermarket doors and washroom sinks, but they are not yet standard tools of peacekeepers.

Fortunately, commercial off-the-shelf monitoring technology is becoming cheaper, better, lighter, and easier to procure and deploy. There has been a proliferation of "intelligent" sensors and surveillance systems. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are readily available on the commercial marketplace at a fraction of the previous price.

Many personal computers are loaded with Google Earth--providing high resolution satellite imagery, which 20 years ago was the sole preserve of military and intelligence agencies--but the United Nations has yet to use near real-time satellite imagery. Digital video networks are making shops and streets safer (notably in London) but are a novelty for peacekeeping in war-torn areas. Model airplane enthusiasts can fly small-scale airplanes equipped with miniature video cameras, but the United Nations has yet to deploy drones in its operations.

By contrast, in the communications field, the UN is top-notch. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) maintains a communications system that is rapidly deployable anywhere on the globe, and capable of voice, video, and data transmission. New York maintains high-quality video-teleconference links, providing crypto-fax, email, Internet and Intranet access to all field missions. Many headquarters databases are accessible from remote locations.

Many modern militaries have taken advantage of the sensor revolution, deploying night-vision equipment and radar for reconnaissance. The United Nations is subjecting personnel to unnecessary risks by not enabling them to monitor dangerous areas from a safe distance. Thus, General Romeo Dallaire complained of being "deaf and blind" in the field in Rwanda in 1994.

In neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an estimated 3-4 million people have perished in widespread strife since 1996, including two civil wars, one of which became a "continental war" with fighting forces from opposing African nations. At the beginning of the crisis, the United Nations could not even provide accurate counts of moving refugees. Currently, illegal armaments are routinely imported into the DRC and illegal minerals are shipped out, without the UN being able to detect or interdict them. Rogue militia routinely collect taxes illegally, loot, smuggle, kidnap, and kill in areas beyond the watch of the United Nations. Furthermore, a peacekeeper dies each month (on average) while serving in the mission to the Congo (MONUC). Increasing technological capabilities could easily lead to improvements in the force's responses and save lives. Although MONUC's military leaders identified the needs for technical surveillance, there has been a lack of action and support on this issue from UN headquarters.

Last year the UN's Special Committee on Peacekeeping requested a comprehensive assessment of monitoring technology. The present author was appointed to carry out that study, and here are the findings, as presented to the member states in March 2007.

Finding Out Secrets

Instead of proactively protecting the vulnerable inhabitants within their areas of operation, all too often peacekeepers can only react to tragedies after they have occurred. Even then, it may be difficult to locate hidden graves, determine the sequence of events, and identify the perpetrators.

One technological contribution would be to place video cameras in selected locations in conflict zones with real time conveyance of the imagery. Cameras can be equipped with telephoto lenses for distant viewing, ruggedized for more robust handling, or miniaturized for discreet photography. Such distant or hidden cameras would be out of reach of perpetrators of human rights violations. Pictures taken during conflict could constitute evidence for prosecutors in national and international courts, as well as for responses by peacekeepers.

Nefarious activities are usually carried out under the cover of darkness, rather than in the light of day. Indeed, 40% of UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) fatalities have occurred at night, though traditionally peacekeeping has been a "daytime job." Even now, UN personnel finish their work and return to their bases as the sun sets. This leaves the United Nations blinded for 12 hours a day. To claim the night back from the forces of violence, the peacekeepers need to make night operations routine. This would be possible using advanced night-vision equipment. Some pioneering demonstrations were carried out in the Congo.

In 2006, MONUC began establishing Mobile Operating Bases in faraway locations. The soldiers were equipped with night-vision goggles to allow them to walk through the jungle at night. These operations cooperated with village vigilance committees that banged pots and pans in order to sound the alarm. The UN forces used their night-vision equipment to locate and confront intruders. For larger-scale combat operations, MONUC has recently authorized night-time deployment of MI-35 helicopters equipped with thermal imagers and image intensifiers to allow pilots to see at night. Once peacekeepers become accustomed to using night-vision equipment, they do not want to patrol without them.

Motion detectors can turn on illuminators at night and cue cameras, detecting intruders entering UN camps or protected/monitored areas. Such detectors can be fine-tuned to go off only when people approach. Older motion detectors often failed to differentiate humans from dogs, cats, or even a wind-blown branch. Today's passive infrared sensors, however, are keyed to the heat coming from the human body. Typically, a household motion detector costs only $20 to $30 with solar-powered detectors costing less than $100.

Disarming unwilling parties is one of the most difficult challenges in peacekeeping. Some UN missions have even refused to do this job for fear of retaliation. This reluctance is understandable. Before confronting smugglers and militia forces, it is important to know what weaponry they possess and pinpoint their arms routes and timings. In this deadly "cat and mouse game," many arms smugglers are better equipped (e.g., with advanced night-vision equipment) than the peacekeepers, allowing them to outsmart the United Nations at almost every turn.

Banned weapons are usually transferred in secret and hidden until they are needed. The search for them can benefit tremendously from tools such as metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to find buried arms caches. GPR can reach deeper than metal detectors and would be particularly useful in detecting weapons buried underground. It is also an excellent tool for detecting hidden graves and sites of massacres. GPR is already in wide use for archaeology, geology and civil engineering.

X-ray machines can detect weapons smuggled through civilian luggage. While X-ray machines also exist to scan entire vehicles, including tractor-trailers and sea containers, they would be too expensive for the United Nations. However, X-ray machines are already used in a few UN missions to detect weapons in luggage, as are metal detectors of the walkthrough and wand variety.

On the Great Lakes of Africa bordering on the DRC, smuggling is rampant. It is not sufficient to observe simply with the human eye. Maritime radars are needed before sending the fast patrol boats to inspect or board suspicious boats. To catch weapons imports into the DRC by aircraft, the United Nations must maintain surveillance over the huge airspace and determine where illegal flights are landing before initiating interdiction operations. Surveillance of the air and from the air are both needed, but neither is provided.

Radars have tremendous potential in peacekeeping on the ground, as well as in the sky, in space or on the water. Ground surveillance radars (GSR) can detect a moving person or vehicle at 3 to 10 kilometres within the field of view.

Air surveillance radars allow for accurate detection of airspace violations, which are common in war-torn areas. In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, NATO monitored the no-fly zones using its AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft. Every second week, the UN Secretary-General circulated long NATO lists of airspace violations, totalling many thousands of violations a year. The UN needs its own aerial surveillance systems.

Synthetic aperture radar can do imaging from high altitudes above clouds. It consists of a radar transmitter/receiver on an airplane or satellite. This radar achieves a high spatial resolution, day and night and in all weather conditions, because it uses the motion of the platform to increase the resolution. Along with commercial satellites, it has helped the United Nations to confirm large refugee movements in places like the Eastern DRC.

Peacekeepers have on occasion employed electronic "ears" (radios with frequency scanners) to listen to radio and electronic communications. This practice is not, and should not be, routinely employed in peacekeeping operations for privacy reasons. However, in some circumstances, electronic interception is entirely warranted--as when peacekeepers are attacked or held hostage. Such monitoring has been employed selectively in several of the UN's large PKOs. The first documented use was in the UN Operation in the Congo (1960-64), where the practice developed casually. In Northern Katanga, a battalion commander established an improvised radio interception system, using a commercial receiver with local Baluba staff as translators. Later in that mission, a more sophisticated interception system with a code-breaking capability was established to stop the nefarious mercenaries who were supporting the secession of the Katanga province.

Acoustic sensor systems enable sound waves to be detected, recorded and transmitted to remote sites. For example, in Bosnia, one-way radios were placed inside weapons storage sites that the understaffed peacekeeping mission could not guard continuously. Several times, parties broke in to loot the sites, but the sensors captured the sounds, including the sound of heavy vehicles being started. This alerted staff at the UN's local headquarters, and in some instances the weapons were recovered.

Seismic systems monitor low-frequency waves traveling through the earth caused by either underground or surface activity, such as explosions, vehicles, or even footsteps. Unattended ground acoustic sensors were successfully used by the US in the Sinai Field Mission (1976-80) where they complemented remotely operated video cameras to notify watch stations of intruders in the strategically-important Giddi and Mitla Passes. In other areas in the mission, strain-sensitive cables were laid across the terrain. Gauges measured the deformation of the cable and nearby ground by intruders. By technical means, some 90 minor violations over nearly four years of observation were detected and resolved. The United Nations, even thirty years later, still has not employed ground sensors to that level.

Chemical agent monitors ('sniffers") are widely used to detect explosives in baggage at airports. Such devices are becoming more compact, more transportable, and more sensitive, thanks to instrument development programs. Sensor kits for biological agents have been developed commercially for testing air, water, and soils. Unfortunately, advanced chemical sensing for landmine detection technology has not yet moved from the prototype stage to field applications in the form of inexpensive and widely-used devices.

A Bird's Eye View

From the earliest days of peacekeeping, the United Nations has taken advantage of observation from altitude. Observations posts were placed on hilltops in the Middle East and Kashmir. But aircraft are even better for monitoring illegal and clandestine activities. They can fly at altitude and above clouds where they are nearly impossible to detect. If, on the other hand, a show of UN presence is desired, aircraft can be flown at low altitudes, or even "buzz" an area to create a distinct impression. Aiding MONUC in the summer of 2003, a French Mirage jet on reconnaissance would deliberately break the sound barrier in a volatile region to create a sonic boom that was clearly noticeable to presumed wrongdoers.

Drones could be used for day and night surveillance. Indeed, the European Union Force assisted MONUC by flying unmanned air vehicles at night in the DRC in 2006, uncovering illegal shipments of arms, ranging from small arms to tanks. Their greatest benefit in peacekeeping is that there is no danger to pilot or crew because none are onboard. Flights over raging conflict areas become possible.

Besides aircraft, there are other means of aerospace monitoring, including satellites and blimps. Satellites are routinely used by the United Nations for communications and IT purposes, but they are not used for timely reconnaissance. The UN's air transportation is impressive, but not its aerial reconnaissance capabilities. Finally, tethered balloons could be useful for observing important areas or corridors on a near-permanent basis. Of course, these stationary objects could also become favorite targets for frustrated combatants. However, if shot down, they can be repaired or replaced in as little as half an hour from the back of a ground vehicle.


Technology can increase the safety and security of peacekeepers as well as the effectiveness of the mission. Today, however, the UN relies mainly on primitive or obsolete methods and devices. By implementing some of the technologies described in the this article, the UN would be able to proactively harness the power of science and technology for peace.

Although some instances of successful use of technology are cited in this article, there is no UN coordinating body to ensure that technology is utilized to maximum benefit. There is much room for improvement. To facilitate the introduction of advanced technologies, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations should ask Member States that have technical expertise to share some of their know-how and equipment. Some developed nations, including Canada, would prefer to offer specialized expertise rather than large numbers of troops to PKOs. A small number of specialists equipped with advanced technologies can make a significant impact on a mission. In addition, the UN needs its own devices so that it can have more control of when, where and how to deploy them.

With a host of activities to monitor, from elections to disarmament to sanctions to a myriad of threats, the world organization needs to broaden its technology base and explore innovative monitoring strategies. In the long run, this would save lives, as well as money.

Walter Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. In 2006-07, during his sabbatical, he served as a consultant to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to develop and present a detailed study on peacekeeping technologies, which is about to be published by the UN.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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