In 1991, news networks the world over showed footage of the various hi-tech weaponry systems deployed by the United States-led coalition in its Desert Storm military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Many marveled over the idea of precision guided munitions with pinpoint accuracy effectively crippling the Iraqi military while simultaneously minimizing civilian casualties (the notion was extremely simplistic, over 90% of munitions used by the U.S.-led coalition in that war were unguided “dumb” bombs).
The late comedian Bill Hicks in one of his routines from the time conceded that it looked impressive. It did however make him wonder, “Couldn’t we use the same technology to shoot food at hungry people?” He went on to imagine a scenario whereby starving people in Africa were provided with fruit by planes with the same pinpoint precision of a smart bomb.
I was reminded of that old routine when I read about a United States Air Force pilot named Mark Jacobsen. Having seen firsthand the destitution many millions of Syrians, who not live in refugee camps in Turkey, are in he described how “epic” the struggle of ordinary people (and those trying to help them) is and how much they have suffered as a result of the terrible ongoing war which is ripping apart their country. Jacobsen consequently wrangled with himself about how many poor civilians still trapped in Syria could effectively be provided with food. Then he came up with an idea. A simple but potentially highly effective one.
Drones are cheap, they are unmanned and remote-controlled and are therefore highly dispensable. Jacobsen figures that tiny drones, each carrying approximately 1-2 kilograms food parcels, could fly into Syria and drop much needed food packages to beleaguered and/or besieged Syrians. That way they wouldn’t be as conspicuous as a transport plane, which could risk getting shot down and its crew either held hostage or killed, and wouldn’t be an overly fatal, nor expensive, loss if they were shot down. Well worth the risk in other words – especially if it helps save the lives of innocent civilians.
Also the intention of these particular drones is to give crucial aid to people under siege by either the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad or brutal Islamist groups like the Islamic State or the Jabhat al-Nusra Front. A little could go a long way under such circumstances and could certainly mean the difference between life or death.
It is one of those simple ideas that has great potential. The proliferation of drones in recent years has been notable and drone technology is constantly evolving and being tweaked and improved. Swarms of drones dropping much needed food to besieged Syrians as Jacobsen may well become a reality in the not too distant future. But only if used for that ad-hoc purpose will such an exercise be helpful. Aid groups have in the past pointed out that dropping food parcels to impoverished people in war zones can actually do more harm than good.
In Afghanistan back in October 2001, shortly after the United States initiated a military campaign against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, aid agencies criticised the dropping of food parcels from the air to hungry Afghan civilians. While those drops were much more broad and indiscriminate than the largely ad-hoc food aid drops Jacobsen advocates the reasons the likes of Oxfam and the Red Cross advised against them are worth remembering. They explained that air-dropped food parcels can actually do more harm than good. In the case of Afghanistan many packages landed in the country’s many minefields where civilians risked serious injury or death rushing to retrieve them.
Air-dropped food aid should only really be used as a last resort. Merely dropping the food in areas where hungry people are can, and has, result in fighting over who gets what, stampeding (which in mountainous areas can be particularly dangerous for obvious reasons) hoarding and warlords seizing it and using it to further coerce and control people while empowering themselves (think about Somalia) to more simple problems — such as the fact many malnourished people often cannot digest it properly and find themselves afflicted by even more crippling stomach problems.
So there is a plethora of problems concerning food aid drops. Of course no form of aid is perfect, but some forms can be more problematic than helpful, even if the intentions of those undertaking it are genuinely good.
Before Jacobsen’s eureka moment the United States has already been working on more accurate ways to air-drop supplies to specific areas without them drifting or being blown off course (when the U.S. Air Force dropped small arms packages to besieged Kurds fighting Islamic State in Kobani, Syria late last year, for example, the besieging Islamic State terrorists got their hands on at least one crate of weapons). This will be done by computer algorithms which help supply pallets glide to its ground target like a paraglider by gauging wind speeds and calculating how they can be measured and used to make sure it arrives at its intended landing site.
Such improvements centered around more effective food drops are underway and look promising. And doubtlessly in Syria food drops in certain parts of the country can be justified on the basis that they are being done as a last resort. After all it’s very hard for aid agencies to get to areas by road, especially when they are trying to get food to trapped civilians in besieged towns and cities. Therefore Jacobsen’s idea has a lot of merit, and given all the things the U.S. has been testing and the lessons it has learned from past short-comings this idea may soon catch on.
Hopefully it will be soon enough to help the many Syrians who are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.