The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Lt Col Troy Lee Cahoon, USAF
/ Published May 28, 2021
Today, it often seems that none of the “cool” kids want to do peacekeeping anymore—meaning, for the last few decades, most of the major powers in the world have contributed relatively few of their own troops to the UN peacekeeping missions. Factors include fear of losing military personnel in dangerous peacekeeping operations that are not considered vital to national interests, fatigue in having large numbers of personnel already deployed for long periods of time in other locations like Iraq and Afghanistan, and peacekeeping rules of engagement that are perceived to inhibit the kind of force that may be necessary to protect our forces and succeed in the mission. Losing support for peacekeeping is an unfortunate trend, since there are still many regions in the world where instability, loss of life, and human suffering abound. Some of the issues that make the major powers reluctant to get more involved in peacekeeping missions could be improved with the use of technology. I will discuss several technologies that should be consciously used to improve peacekeeping, including technologies that provide basic needs, mobility, communications, security, command & control, and robotic assistance. These varied technologies will improve peacekeeping operations by making troops more secure, providing force multipliers that enable them to more effectively keep the peace, and supporting the needs of the populations they serve with cutting-edge kind-of-cool tactics.1
Provide the Basics
Taking care of the basic needs of the troops and the population is of primary importance. Because of this, some of the most important technological improvements in peacekeeping missions should focus on proving needs such as water, shelter, energy, and health. To help improve access to water, technologies like ground-penetrating radar and geospatial imaging could more effectively help locate sites for water wells. Water recycling, rain capture, and water efficiency capabilities could be employed to cut the environmental impact of peacekeeper facilities and reduce the volume of water needed. These capabilities could also be extended to local populations to enhance their standard of living.2
When considering shelter for troops and refugees, both could benefit from advances in technologies that build a shelter safer than tents and at a much more affordable cost. For example, the Ikea foundation has developed modular flat-pack, hard walled shelters that are easy to assemble without power tools or additional equipment. Additionally, construction technologies have been developed to 3D print housing units or larger structures that can be printed in 24 hours for just a few thousand dollars. These types of structures can be much safer than tents, more durable, and built to meet modern urban code, helping to improve the comfort and safety of the troops and refugees.3
After the basic need of shelter is the need to provide energy for peacekeeping forces and for refugee compounds. Much of the energy for these purposes is currently supplied by large diesel generators. Unfortunately, these diesel generators have some drawbacks: they can be loud, emit pollution hazardous to humans and the environment, and the fuel supplying them must often be transported long distances, making convoys subject to theft and improvised explosive devices (IED). One option for overcoming these drawbacks is to look for local sources of energy, particularly renewable energy like solar or wind power. Adding power backups, like a Tesla Powerwall or Power Packs, to the peacekeeper facilities power grid have the double benefits of providing power in an emergency and smoothing out the peaks in the electrical supply of the renewables and the energy demands of the day. Another possible solution for providing a clean, plentiful, and secure source of energy that may be available further into the future is the use of micro reactors. These small-scale nuclear reactors could supply large amounts of energy and very rarely need to be refueled. With plentiful energy, even troop vehicles, drones, and robots could be powered by electricity. Battery technologies have improved so much over the last several years, and battery costs have come down to the point where these battery powered vehicles might have better performance, quieter and cleaner operation, and vastly lower operating and maintenance costs than ever before. Battery costs are projected to continue to decline by another 59 percent, and battery performance will improve by 54 percent just over the next three years.4 These changes in the viability of electrically powered equipment are game changing for peacekeeping and would be a tremendous force multiplier for peacekeepers by eliminating the need for fuel shipping, improving performance, cutting costs, and reducing vulnerability to power outages.
Another need that is vital to making peacekeeping safe and trendy is health care. Technologies in healthcare are important to ensure that the peacekeepers can get access to clean and high-quality medical care when they are deployed in remote areas. One of the main problems that troops face is the vast distances between medical facilities in the regions where peacekeeping operations are being conducted. A method for providing for this need is to develop and field high-tech air ambulances that can quickly travel to locations where peacekeepers are operating and may need medical care. Another solution is to provide every peacekeeping unit with high-quality medical trauma packs that include the latest in emergency care technologies. It is important to provide highly trained medical personnel in every region that peacekeepers are operating in, as well as provide training to as many unit personnel as possible so that they can provide their own care when in a remote location in an emergency. Another option should be to provide the capability to do video telemedicine, where doctors and specialists from across the world can video conference and remotely provide care. In the future, robots might be remotely controlled by hometown doctors to perform procedures in the field. Supplying ready access to good medical care for peacekeeping missions will encourage more troop participation by reducing casualties and assuring participants that they will be well taken care of with the technologies medical personnel have at their disposal.5
Technology can improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping in tremendous ways as improvements to mobility are made. Mine-resistant vehicles should be provided to peacekeeping troops to help them be more secure from mines and IEDs as they travel around. The peacekeeper vehicles could also be equipped with IED jammers and ground penetrating radars to disrupt and detect the IEDs. As mentioned before, many vehicles could soon be converted to electrical power to enable cleaner, quieter operations and to reduce costs. To take mobility to the next level, electric vertical takeoff and landing craft (eVTOLs) might also be used. There is a large push in the US Air Force to become the leader in developing and fielding eVTOLs. These highly mobile aircraft can land in smaller footprints than a helicopter, can be potentially flown by non-pilots, or can be autonomously piloted. Additionally, eVTOLs will be dramatically cheaper to operate and maintain than helicopters.
Being able to quickly fly around in an eVTOL will have the added benefit of avoiding IEDs and travelling over rough terrain without roads. Another advantage eVTOLs have over helicopters and other aircraft is how quiet they are. With their electric propulsion and small rotors, eVTOLs can be as quiet as a whisper when they are just 1000 feet away. Currently, there are already prototypes from many companies, some flying at 170 mph with a range of about 100 miles.6 Coupled with the battery energy density improvements coming over the next few years, these performance capabilities will get much better and should be integrated into supporting the troops. eVTOL craft will be highly flexible with many ways that they could support peacekeeping operations. Transporting supplies and troops around will become much safer and faster. They could also support medevac by developing air ambulance versions, and they would enable rapid response to violence outbreaks or in times of natural disaster. Manned and unmanned versions could be used for ISR platforms to enable better command and control of situations across the mission area. With the important added capabilities and safety features that the eVTOLs and other mobility technologies can provide, there will be a much stronger incentive for countries to contribute troops to support peacekeeping operations.
In addition to improved mobility, important technologies that would vastly improve peacekeeping operations are in the field of communications. Communications for phone calls, messaging, video, and multimedia are important to many aspects of peacekeeping operations. Unfortunately, most peacekeeping operations are conducted in underdeveloped and volatile regions that have little to no local access to communications and internet capabilities. Most modern militaries can bring in their own communications equipment, but it can often be difficult to operate, be unreliable, have spotty coverage, and be expensive. Additionally, with diverse forces coming together for peacekeeping operations, there can often be significant interoperability issues between various units. Fortunately, there are some communication technologies in beta testing phases that could dramatically help peacekeeping. The company SpaceX is in the process of launching the world’s largest satellite network called Starlink. Starlink will provide high-bandwidth, low-latency data connections across the whole earth, including functionality at high latitudes, over oceans, and in large areas of sparsely tech-developed continents like Africa. Because of low launch cost and mass-produced satellites, the Starlink network promises to be a much more affordable, reliable, and capable network than current satellite-based communications networks. Starlink already has the largest fleet of satellites, with over 700 in orbit and a planned constellation of 4400 satellites for initial operational capability and additional plans to grow that number to over 30,000. Beta testing for the network is beginning this year. The US Air Force has already shown strong interest in using the Starlink network for some of its own operations and weapon systems, and they have begun early tests of Starlink terminals that have provided encrypted data links on a variety of its aircraft. The US Air Force Chief for Acquisition, Dr. Will Roper, has been the driving force in the Air Force testing and evaluation of the Starlink system, and he has been impressed with the results thus far and the implications of using this tech in peacekeeping.7
Reliable network connections can be important to peacekeeping for many reasons. First, they will relay better command and control communications back to the peacekeeping mission headquarters and to the United Nations (UN). Using faster tech communications will allow much better real-time information on the status of forces and events occurring in a country’s mission areas. As more technology is fielded in peacekeeping operations, the more critical it will be to have a reliable, secure network with a lot of bandwidth that allows for an increase in sensor communication between various security sensors, drones, ISR systems, vehicles, and personnel. These networks will also help to provide outlets for rest and relaxation for the troops (movies, music, games, and libraries) and help them to stay better connected to their families at home. For the local populations, these networks could also be utilized by local leaders and the populace to stay informed, connected, and educated—all very valuable peacekeeping benefits from improving the stability and local capacity of the communities and the countries being served.8 Quality of life improvements like these will go a long way toward making more countries willing to contribute troops to the peacekeeping missions.
There are several technologies that can improve the tools that peacekeepers can use for security purposes. One technology that can help is the simple security camera. With the proliferation of security cameras being used in homes and businesses across the world, there have been some significant advances in these devices lately that will prove beneficial in peacekeeping situations. First, the cost of cameras has dropped so that it is affordable to deploy large numbers of them on a very low budget. Another improved feature of a security camera is the artificial intelligence software that can be used to operate them. The AI can detect when there is motion, and some can automatically detect people. This security technology helps solve the problem of information overload, which occurs when there are so many sources of data, video, and imagery that it becomes too difficult to find the small portion of the data that is useful. With both motion and person detection, video feeds can be filtered so that only clips with action and people will be recorded and presented to the monitoring personnel. Combined with AI, the proliferation of camera sensors can be a huge force multiplier for peacekeeping operations. These sensors can be used to provide security for troop facilities, vital government and utility facilities, and refugee camps and other portions of civilian population that may be vulnerable to violence. Low-cost security technology could also be placed along transportation routes to deter and detect IED placements.9
Another peacekeeping advancement in low-cost security cameras is that many cameras can now be wirelessly connected and run on batteries for a long period of time. This allows them to be a lot more flexible in their placement, without the extra expense and effort of running wires to every device. It also means that security cameras can be mobile and easily moved to different locations, as in the examples of mobile cameras used in dash-cams for vehicles or in bodycams for troops. Such devices can be transformative for peacekeeping operations for a number of reasons. First, as peacekeepers patrol in their vehicles and on foot, the cameras provide accountability and improved behavior for the troops since they know that their actions are being recorded. Next, if video is live streamed back to the operations HQ, it can give a comprehensive situational awareness of what is going on in the field. This is especially true if the troops also have personnel locator devices that allow the HQ to track where all of the blue forces are. Finally, mobile cameras provide a record of the truth, both good and bad, which facilitates prosecution of bad actors and protects good actors from false accusations. As peacekeepers try to develop good relations with the local populace, it is important that the people can see the peacekeeping troops being accountable and performing good works, and that they are not deceived by false accusation from spoilers. Having many cameras that help secure the population and record the efforts of the peacekeepers could provide the evidence and accountability needed for positive relations to be built.10
Non-lethal weapons are another technology that could be used to improve security in peacekeeping operations. One major reason countries hesitate to participate in UN operations is that in the past, some of the rules of engagement for peacekeeping missions have prohibited the use of violence to protect populations or peacekeeping troops. This puts peacekeepers in unfortunate situations of not being able to do anything if violence spirals out of control. Conversely, if peacekeepers do resort to lethal force to protect themselves or portions of the local population, then the UN force will be viewed as a combatant force in the conflict, making them a target. Non-lethal weapons provide an extra tool for peacekeepers to use without resorting to lethal force. Troops trained and equipped with non-lethal weapons could prevent violence from escalating in situations like thieves stealing from UN or refugee camps, gangs preying on innocent civilians, crowds gathering in tense situations, and villagers blocking convoys. Some examples of non-lethal weapons already in use by several modern militaries are tasers, stun or smoke grenades, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and tear gas. Newer methods of non-lethal tech include painful noise, loud messages, and heat-rays. Combining some of these technologies with drone delivery systems could provide a highly rapid response to escalating situations that can disperse or diffuse the belligerents before things get out of control and without putting troops in dangerous situations.11
Command and Control
Technology has a lot of potential to improve command & control of peacekeeping missions. Aerial data, overhead visualizations, satellite imagery, personnel location info, and sensor inputs must be coordinated, compiled, and filtered in order for data to become actionable information. All of these inputs can be combined in geospatial information systems (GIS) that allow anyone across the mission area to access and analyze data pertinent to their own local or regional sphere of operations. The above technologies aid at the HQ and strategic level for mission planning, as well as at local levels where individual units on the ground can see what is going on around them, what is happening just over the next hill, and identify what’s taking place in a nearby neighborhood. GIS platforms provide the capability to improve situational awareness and identify patterns and relationships by overlaying data, and tracking changes over time. GIS platforms are particularly important in peacekeeping operations to observe borders, monitor ceasefire lines, assist electoral processes, protect civilians, provide humanitarian assistance, spot force build-ups, and oversee demobilizations.12
There are some jobs that must get done in a peacekeeping mission that could be done, better or more safely, by robots. Robots are a force multiplier by completing tasks that are either dangerous, highly repetitive, or need continuous operations that a human is not suited for. These robots can be either remotely controlled or fully autonomous. There is already a wide array of robots that have been developed and are being employed by various militaries and emergency response units. Some of the tasks that these robots can take on that would lend themselves well to supporting peacekeeping operations include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), search and rescue, combat support, mine and IED clearance, explosive ordinance disposal, autonomous driving vehicles, and firefighting. An advantage of using high-tech robots is that they can operate nearly continuously without getting tired, drunk, bored, or killed. Robots can often see in several directions at once and view a broader spectrum, to include night vision, infrared, and radar. Robots can be expensive to develop, procure, operate, and maintain, but they do not have to be. If they are designed up front to be mass produced, autonomous, and easily maintained, then robot tech could end up being very affordable and possibly less expensive than a human providing the same function. Automation technologies are becoming continuously more capable and affordable, allowing them to be more broadly deployed. Robots offer an excellent opportunity to improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations by providing a massive force multiplier and by reducing casualties in dangerous situations.13
Combining basic need, mobility, communications, security, command & control, and robot technologies together have the potential to dramatically improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, while also making the troops and the local populations much safer. Providing the basic needs and security of the troops and local populations is essential for attracting quality peacekeeping forces and establishing the foundation for stability in each mission. These technologies will provide the needed capabilities for the peacekeeping forces to win when they need to and safely enforce peace in a dominant but non-violent fashion as much as possible. As US Air Force and UN peacekeeping forces become more capable and better equipped with modern technologies, each peacekeeping unit will be able to have a much larger sphere of influence within their mission area. Additionally, the more powerful the peacekeeping forces are through their use of technology, the more of a deterrent they project to any bad actors, and the more confidence they inspire in the local population As confidence in the security and capability of peacekeeping forces rise, more countries will be inspired to contribute their troops to the cause of peacekeeping.
Lt Col Troy Cahoon
Lt Col Troy Cahoon (BS, Brigham Young University; MS, Air Force Institute of Technology) is a student at the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. Lt Col Cahoon has eighteen years of service with the USAF, including twelve years as an active duty officer and 6 years as both a federal civilian working for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and as a reservist for the Air Force Research Labs. Lt Col Cahoon has a broad range of experience developing, testing, fielding, and sustaining technology through his various positions in the Air Force. Weapon systems he has worked on include the AC-130U, MC-130H/E/P, Joint Threat Emitter, Minuteman III, C-5, B-1, HH-60G, and Global Hawk.
1 Alex J. Bellamy and Paul D. Williams, Understanding Peacekeeping, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 56-67.
2 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping: Final Report on the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping, New York: UN, 22 December 2014, 32-3.
3 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping, 30-1.
4 Tesla, “2020 Annual Shareholder Meeting and Battery Day,” streamed live on 22 September 2020, 1:53:19, https://www.youtube.com/.
5 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping, 41-5.
6 AFWERX, “Agility Prime Team-Up Day 2,” streamed live on 16 July 2020, 13:30, https://www.youtube.com/ .
7 Evelyn Arevalo, “U.S. Air Force Acquisition Chief Is Impressed by SpaceX Starlink's Performance during Live-Fire Exercise,” Tesmanian, 24 September 2020, https://www.tesmanian.com/.
8 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping, 43, 58-61.
9 Dr. A. Walter Dorn, “Blue Sensors: Technology and Cooperative Monitoring in UN Peacekeeping,” Sandia National Laboratories, April 2004, 19-29, https://www.sandia.gov/.
10 Dr. Dorn, “Blue Sensors,” 19-29.
11 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping, 76.
12 United Nations, Performance Peacekeeping, 49-57; and Elodie Convergne & Michael R. Snyder, “Making Maps to Make Peace: Geospatial Technology as a Tool for UN Peacekeeping,” International Peacekeeping, 22:5, October 2015, 565-86, doi:10.1080/13533312.2015.1094193.
13 Anuj Mishra & Simpy Kumari, “Military Robots Play a Pivotal Role as a Tactical and Operational Tool for Armed Forces,” Market Research Blog, 23 May 2018, https://blog.marketresearch.com/.
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