Several Western nations - including the UK, in parts of Northern Ireland - are resorting to "eye-in-the-sky" surveillance, especially in rural areas. Israel and South Africa have deployed remote pilotless vehicles (RPVs) in attempts to counter insurgency. The Israeli defence force maintains a 24h watch over south Lebanon to spot the movement of hostile "armed elements" trying to infiltrate the security zone adjacent to northern Galilee.

In South Africa, specifically in Kwa-Zulu, where insurgent deaths can run into double figures over a weekend, the RPVs have been used in a series of para-military counter-insurgency programmes in the region around the Natal capital of Pietermaritzburg and along the south coast where gang warfare can get out of hand. This is a region disputed by the pro-government African National Congress (ANC) and Chief Mongusothu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement (IFP). Some attacks have left as many as 30 dead, most of them women and children.

In these joint army, air force and police operations named "Jambo One", "Two" and "Three" respectively, security forces have spent anything from four to eight weeks on full-scale military operations involving helicopter-led strikes against rebel strongpoints. Some of the gangs encountered have been 2,000-strong. Almost all are armed.

All deployments of RPVs in southern Africa are geared for the immediate airlifting of a reaction force to any target area where suspicious activity might have been observed.


Versatile seeker

The 250kg Kentron "Seeker" RPV used by southern Africa security forces can be flown from and landed on any runway, as it was at Margate in Kwa-Zulu when Flight International spent time with the unit. Once it reaches its designated altitude a second "pilot" in a modular control room takes over. The entire system is operated from three containers which have been converted into mobile electronic-control stations which can easily be moved by truck.

The South African-manufactured RPV bears a striking resemblance to Israeli RPVs, largely because Israeli specialists, working at Kentron during the Apartheid-era of co-operation between the two nations, helped with the development. Operationally, the only real difference between the deployment of RPVs by the two countries is that Israel, at any one time, will have two or three of these devices aloft over south Lebanon, day and night. Both versions have remarkable night time infra-red capability.

The camera or thermal-imaging system (TIS) of the Seeker is stable enough in flight, with its onboard gyrostatic system, to send clear pictures to ground control from 18,000ft (5,500m). It can be deployed to positions 200km (110nm) from the control centre, where it will stay aloft over a target for up to 2h and then return to base. Or it can be used for work in the immediate area of operations for 6h before being recalled by its "phantom" pilot.

Photographing the operations room or controls is forbidden, for security reasons, but these are almost identical to the Israeli versions. Restrictions had as much to do with the Israeli connection as to avoid providing competitors with details of operational parameters.


Visible presence

The Seeker has its drawbacks. Once in the air, the "enemy" is aware of its presence. If the Israeli experience over Lebanon is anything to go by, however, the Hizbollah group or its Syrian backers have yet to destroy one in the air.

In South Africa, there are those who maintain that the presence of the Seeker tends to limit the activity of any hostile element, although one of the Kentron executives denies this. "Any small aircraft, whether piloted or not, flying 5 or 8km from a target position is unlikely to cause much of a stir," he says.

"You know it's there. At the same time, you don't know exactly what it is looking at. Only we at base, where we watch the images that it transmits, are aware of what is really going on," says Frans Booysen of Kentron, who runs the unit on the Natal south coast.

The Seeker is unique, he adds, in that it incorporates within its modest frame an electronic, jam-resistant, microwave link with a back-up ultra-high-frequency command sensor, as well as an autonomous "return-home" system, all of which is ideal for wartime conditions. The Israelis use similar systems, and the Syrians have been trying to jam their RPVs for years with little success.

The mainstay of the South African RPV is its camera or TIS, which can zoom from a 27¹ field of view down to 0.8¹. This gives it excellent versatility when it needs to zero into a specific building or vehicle that it might have been tracking. It can "read" the licence plate of a car from 6km.

Three Kenton Seekers usually form a single sales or export package. In South Africa, however, only one RPV is sent up at a time. Each Seeker requires its own fully operation headquarters, with a crew of nine. This includes all electronic, observer, monitoring, intelligence and flight staff. The cost is less than $5,000 a day, including wages, meals and accommodation. This is half what the Israelis charge for the same deal.

In the region to the west of Port Shepstone, where much of operation Jambo Three's activity took place, the hilly, overgrown countryside provides ideal cover for any kind of guerrilla or subversive operation. In parts it is overpopulated, with clusters of primitive tin shacks, and has few decent approach roads. Elsewhere, the terrain is almost primeval, broken by several large, fast-flowing rivers heading towards the sea from the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountain) in the interior. In winter, the higher climbs can be covered in snow.

One of the bases surveyed by the Seeker over the south-coast area before the security forces went in, was termed "Town Houses" because the shacks around the base of the hill on which the improvised complex was situated looked like a cluster of town houses. It was home to a gang of about 2,000 people, possibly more.

"We tried to raid the place several times," says Col Brand Haasbroek. "But their observation posts always warned them that we were on our way." It was apparently a primitive arrangement but it worked well; men and children in trees and high points scouring the horizon for a sign of a helicopter-led fire force. "When they saw us coming, their leaders would disappear into the mountains behind, which was one reason why we couldn't get close to them,access was limited by the harsh terrain," he says.

"With the Seeker, we watched them continuously. Gradually, we got to know their habits and their security systems. Then we went in at 3.00 and literally pulled them out of their beds," Haasboek says. The Seeker had even managed to show the security forces a way in through their defences, undetected.

A dozen men were arrested for capital crimes including murder, abduction, rape, and robbery with violence. There were also numerous weapons seized, including a cache of Kalashinkov AK-47 semi-automatic rifles recently brought from Mozambique.

The Natal south coast raids of mid-1996 were co-ordinated by an air force Mobile Air Operations Team. Its activities were commanded by a veteran of South Africa's Angola war, Colonel Mike de Goede. He had spent half his life involved in insurgency with the notorious 32 Battalion which made a speciality of raiding deep into enemy territory.


No shooting

"There are similarities with what is happening here in Natal and what we went through in Angola, but of course this is not a war," says de Goede. "South Africa is not like that any more. In wartime, when a man heads into a thickly forested gully we could flush him out with fire power. Now, we have to bring our suspects out alive and hand them over to the police and, of course, the other side knows that. If they start shooting at us, its another matter altogether, then we react accordingly."

According to the colonel, routines vary. Sometimes his men go in at 15.00, other times it might be midnight. One day they hit a position about 10km from their base. Local intelligence had indicated that the target was a "gun factory" where locals made improvised weapons, which although primitive were often remarkably effective. A dozen guns were seized and several suspects were handed over to the police.

The system works according to a rigid pattern. Once a "Guerrilla Base Area", as it is termed, has been identified, an order goes out to the air force detachment to stand by. Bases are invariably controlled by warlords and have been known to offer stiff resistance. There could be as many as 1,000 trained men at such a camp, usually Zulu-Inkatha. Many of these recruits would have had some military experience in Angola or Namibia while attached to regular army units, or they would have been trained by well-paid white, right-wing mercenaries, who teach them how to wage an effective guerrilla war. Base areas are situated in several "safe areas" where they can plan, train and store weapons. Some criminals who commit crimes elsewhere can find refuge there.

Two types of helicopters are involved in these operations: a six-seater Eurocopter BK-117 usually lifts off first with de Goede in a command and control role. Two South African Air Force Denel Oryx helicopters will follow 10 or 15min later, depending on the distance from the base, ferrying a combined army and police detachment, usually 14 troops altogether. Once the men have put down, the BK-117 will continue to circle the position, keeping close radio communication with the ground. The objective is to look for anyone trying to escape the net, which invariably happens. Ground forces taken in by "Mamba" four-by-four vehicles will have been placed in position as stopper groups.

The Oryx used in these counter-insurgency roles is an advanced development of the French Eurocopter Puma (the two aircraft look similar). In fact, very little, apart from the mainframe, is the same.

The Oryx, in this role, can stay aloft for 3.5h, cruising at 130kt (240km/h) with a maximum capacity of 16 fully equipped troops. This is roughly 25% more than that of the Puma. Pilots at the base maintain that the Oryx is not only more powerful, but is also more sensitive at the controls than its predecessor. It can lift 8t to 8,000ft. There have been a few teething problems with the helicopters. One of the Oryxs involved in Operation Jambo Three was forced down in an emergency landing after a pitch change-rod bearing fractured. Another minute in the air and it would have crashed.

Politics is at the root of much of the violence in Natal. Throughout a good deal of the province, the Government-led ANC is trying to make inroads where the support, traditionally, is for Inkatha. Relations have deteriorated to the level of day-to-day hostilities between the two well-armed factions, one group often laying ambushes on public roads for the other.

At other times, one group will enter an area known for its allegiance to the opposition. In the "Christmas Day Massacres" in 1995, 19 people were gunned down by Inkatha supporters at Shoboshabani, barely minutes flying time from Margate. Operation Jambo Three was a direct consequence of that event. Another massacre took place 200km away while the troops were deployed, calling a halt to operations in the Margate and Port Shepstone areas.

Because of the exceptional rate of unemployment in Natal, much of the crime in the region results from the need to put bread on the table. Other crimes are politically motivated. Some new South African politicians are alleged to have hired thugs to remove their opponents and some people fear that a civil war could break out in the not-to-distant future.


Counter-insurgency role

Many South African army and police officers believe that the South African National Defence Force, and the air force in particular, should not be used in counter-insurgency roles within the borders of the country. The constitution clearly states that the armed forces are there to counter external aggression, or to give humanitarian aid in a national crisis. Some of the events which have taken place in a region almost as big as Portugal have been labelled as insurgency by most observers, however.

Some of the field commanders, such as Colonel Jan Hougaard of OC Group 9 in Pietermaritzburg, maintain that hostilities have already entered what is termed a "guerrilla war" phase. It was classified as such by a visiting French gendarmerie general who has made a study of such matters in many countries. It is a fact that violence in Natal is playing a role in forcing many South Africans to look abroad for their own and their children's futures.

Source: Flight International