PART VI Evolving Capabilities

Evolving Capabilities


Originally published as PART VI "Evolving Capabilities" in Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace (A. Walter Dorn, Ed.), Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, UK 2014, pp. 283-284. (pdf version)

This volume demonstrates that peacekeeping is much more than soldiers in blue helmets and white vehicles patrolling on the ground. Peacekeeping also means air action, co-ordinating with the soldiers, sailors, police, and civilians below. As has been shown, UN aircraft have fired guns, launched missiles, and even dropped bombs. This volume has also offered new information and insights into the staple of UN aviation: transportation of personnel and supplies. Several million peacekeeper–passengers have been carried to the field and within missions along with their equipment and weapons, including, on occasion, tanks, helicopters, and other heavy-lift items. Described in this volume, using selected case studies, is the UN experience with air power for each of the three core air capabilities: transport, observation, and firepower. The authors have shown in the most comprehensive manner to date how the United Nations has made use of the “third dimension” of space. Currently, the United Nations relies on 200 to 300 aircraft – all on loan or lease – to provide air support for some 15 peacekeeping missions around the world. It spends about US$1 billion annually on aviation. The organization pays about a dozen of its member nations for the loan of their aircraft and crew, but the majority (two-thirds) of aircraft and crews are leased from commercial contractors. As has been covered, in addition to the aviation work of the departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, another major contributor is the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service run by the World Food Programme, flying relief workers and supplies using about 50 leased aircraft to the world’s emergency zones.

Even with the huge (fivefold) expansion in peacekeeping since the turn of the century, the United Nations is still underequipped and under-resourced, in air power as in many other areas, and remains unable to fully meet the ambitious mandates given by the UN Security Council. The world organization faces a perennial shortage of helicopters and has few combat aircraft at its disposal: only about a dozen armed helicopters and no jet fighters. It is therefore remarkable that the United Nations can do so much with so little in so many places of the conflict-ridden world. A comparison with the operations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Bosnia in the second half of the 1990s shows how much more advanced were the NATO aircraft fleet, which included Joint Surveillance, Targeting Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL); and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like Lofty View, Predator, and Pioneer. Even more advanced was NATO’s air fleet for the UN-authorized Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. The United Nations conducts so-called “poor man’s aviation”, with too little in the way of high technology. Despite this, the UN has largely been successful in keeping flights safe, cost effective, and green (environmentally, through a recent fuel-efficiency initiative). There are also hopeful signs of advancement in UN aviation technology: in 2013, the United Nations flew its own imaging UAV for the first time – a small but important step forward. However, a tremendous capability gap remains between the peacekeeping UN and the made-for-warfighting NATO.

Fortunately, there is vision and commitment both inside and outside the United Nations for the world organization to advance its aviation capabilities. To give a view of recent progress and where the United Nations is headed, the Chief of Aviation Projects at UN headquarters, Kevin Shelton-Smith, offers a highly useful Chapter 16, full of practical insights. In Chapter 17, Robert David Steele presents a grand vision with many creative and novel elements that represent “big sky” and “out-of-the-box” thinking on the UN air power of the future, while being quite critical of current US support.


© Walter Dorn 2014. Web graphics by Maxwell Ng; web design by Ken Simons