In March, the United Nations convened its first ever Chiefs of Defence conference. It was a rare opportunity for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appeal directly to senior military officials from more than 100 countries for contributions to UN peacekeeping. It wasn’t a hollow plea. The UN is grappling with the challenge of supporting close to 130,000 military personnel (PDF) in environments where the blue helmet offers little guarantee of protection. As US Ambassador Samantha Power told a European audience that same month, peacekeeping today ‘is not your mother’s peacekeeping’. Peacekeepers are deployed in non-permissive threat environments where they are the direct target of terrorists applying asymmetric tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
IEDs aren’t a new threat in the context of peacekeeping operations. However, the number and sophistication of attacks started to increase sharply during 2013–2014, claiming the lives of a growing number of peacekeepers. These developments have wideranging implications for UN peacekeeping. Technology can act as a critical enabler in addressing some of these challenges and mitigating some of these risks. It’s an issue I explore in more depth in a newly published paper on Counter-IED Technology in UN Peacekeeping: Expanding Capability and Mitigating Risks (PDF). The paper—which has been published as part of the collaborative ‘Providing for Peacekeeping’ project— examines some of the broad lessons that have emerged from the application of technology by NATO and its partners in Afghanistan over the last decade. Drawing on these lessons, it identifies options to improve the UN’s counter-IED approach in peacekeeping operations.
Advancements in technology contributed to improved counter-IED approaches in contexts such as Afghanistan. But efforts to improve the availability of such equipment to peacekeepers have been slowed in part by broader political sensitivities including host state consent, management of surveillance information, and fears such equipment would substitute for troops on the ground (and consequently diminish financial reimbursement).
In an effort to address some of these concerns, the UN Secretary-General appointed an expert panel in June 2014 to comprehensively examine the issues. The panel’s final report dispelled several myths and identified a range of mission critical technologies for consideration. It acknowledged that IEDs were limiting the operational effectiveness and identified numerous technology options including mine-protected vehicles, electronic counter-measures, ‘bolt on’ armour, ground-penetrating radar and unmanned aerial vehicles. None of these are new technologies. Such capabilities were a common feature of ISAF operations in Afghanistan. But they are rare commodities in UN peacekeeping.
Many major troop contributors to UN peacekeeping missions with substantial IED threats—Mali and the Middle East—come from Africa and Asia. Most have limited experience operating in high-tempo asymmetric threat environments. As I note in the paper, gaps in UN policy and guidance on counter-IED also mean existing UN force generation processes are less effective in identifying potential capabilities. Consequently, many peacekeepers are deploying without capabilities viewed as indispensable by some countries (such as Australia). Deficits in levels of experience, training and force protection, combined with limited host government capacity, remain key obstacles to effectively mitigating and defeating IEDs. The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS)—the system lead on counter-IED—has been attempting to address these gaps through the provision of equipment and training. But efforts are generally ad hoc and in short supply.
Peacekeeping missions will struggle to address the threat of IEDs without experienced contributors and advanced capabilities including technology. This requires a broader base of peacekeeping contributors. It was one of the aims of the UN Chiefs of Defence conference in March. It is also a priority for the United States, with President Obama expected to host a high-level peacekeeping summit in September 2015.
The ADF Counter-IED Task Force has nearly a decade of experience addressing IED threats. It is currently working with UNMAS and INTERPOL to pilot the AXON Global counter-IED database, intended to share information on IED events internationally. It serves as a good starting point, but more support is needed. Although unlikely, short-term deployment of counter-IED experts and teams to peacekeeping missions would be highly by regarded by the UN. Another avenue for assistance could be the delivery of counter-IED training and equipment to deploying peacekeeping contributors. It’s something we’ve done with the Afghan National Security Forces. Similar programs could build on existing defence cooperation programs in our immediate region and make an important contribution to the limited peacekeeping capacity-building Australia currently delivers in Africa.
With Australia’s current levels of UN peacekeeping deployments at their lowest in nearly a decade, the government should consider opportunities to lend further support to peacekeeping in advance of the Obama summit in September. Counter-IED expertise, training and capacity building for UN peacekeepers is one area that would make a tangible and welcome contribution.