On September 18, Russian forces bombed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy carrying food and medicine to civilians outside of Aleppo. In the weeks since, Syrian airstrikes backed by Russia have continually, savagely pounded the city, pushing the humanitarian crisis there to new and catastrophic depths. These reprehensible attacks, which likely constitute war crimes, have forced the UN to suspend delivery of crucial aid to people who are literally suffering from mass starvation across Aleppo and throughout Syria.
The world has the capacity to deliver humanitarian aid to these devastated areas without putting the lives of aid workers at risk. We have the ability to alleviate the suffering of millions of people, not a month or a year from now, but immediately. We have, in a word, drones.
The US government has military-grade UAVs sitting in storage after multiple tours in Afghanistan which can carry thousands of pounds of food and medicine at a time. Readily available commercial drones with medium lift capabilities could also be deployed immediately, as could smaller disposable drones that have minimal lift capacity but could be highly effective and cost-efficient if deployed en masse.
UAVs represent a new technological twist on an old tactic: airlifting humanitarian aid into conflict zones, as the United States did in Berlin during the late 1940s and the Balkans during the late 1990s. But aeronautical technology isn’t the only field to have seen dramatic advancement since the Balkan intervention: food technology has changed significantly as well, allowing much more nourishment per payload. Five thousand pounds of Soylent, Plumpy’Nut and Life Straws will go a lot further and save a lot more people than five thousand pounds of rice and water.
The logistics of UAV delivery are much simpler than delivery through manned aircraft: GPS coordinates for deliveries of payloads can be coordinated with aid workers on the ground through satellite messages or even Facebook, and if a UAV gets shot down, no one dies – we just send more after it, day and night, delivering life-saving supplies.
These efforts, of course, will not be without challenges. Local communities in Syria will need to be acclimated to the UAVs’ presence and taught to differentiate humanitarian UAVs from Russian and Syrian offensive ones. Russia and Syria will also be displeased by UAVs in Syrian airspace, even if the aircraft are strictly used for humanitarian purposes.
But non-violent UAV missions in Haiti, Ukraine, Nepal, the Balkans, and elsewhere have demonstrated that local communities can be educated and acclimated to the presence of friendly drones. Moreover, Russia and Syria have caused this ghastly humanitarian crisis, and their astonishing disregard for civilian life leaves them no standing in international law or world opinion to object to humanitarian drones being sent in by the thousands.
A massive, American-led humanitarian drone effort would demonstrate to the world that the United States and its allies stand on the side of human rights and basic decency – a stark contrast to Russia and Syria’s use of chlorine barrel bombs and mass starvation as a tool of war. Russia and the Assad government have proven that only extraordinary measures will bring relief to the besieged Syrian people, and we have the ability to help immediately. If we decided to do so, we could literally start deploying these drones today and begin saving tens of thousands of lives tomorrow. As such, every day that we do not act, every day that we do not use the readily available technology at our disposal to deliver food and medicine, more innocent people will die.
It is therefore a moral imperative to begin sending drones with food and medicine without delay.
Michael Auerbach is a senior vice president of Albright Stonebridge Group and board member of the Commercial Drone Alliance. He is also an investor and board director of Cybaero – a Swedish commercial drone manufacturer.