Can Drone Technology Find the Nigerian Girls?

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The search for more than 200 missing Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped a month ago is going high-tech, but questions remain as to whether high-flying U.S. drones will manage to find them. President Obama this week ordered the deployment of 80 U.S. armed forces to neighboring Chad.

"These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area," the White House said in a letter released Wednesday. "The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required."

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Northern Nigeria is where the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is suspected of holding the girls. The group is also suspected of bombings through Nigeria this week that have left hundreds of people dead. The U.S. forces will be operating an armed Predator drone, two Global Hawk reconnaissance drones and surveillance airplanes. The United Kingdom has also offered to fly its own aerial assets.

International outcry over the fate of the girls and the lack of action by Nigeria’s own military has spurred the White House action. But the Pentagon is not likely to put U.S. boots on Nigerian soil, experts say.

One U.S. military expert says flying drones over Nigerian forests won’t do much unless there are corresponding agents on the ground gathering intelligence and feeding it back to drone pilots.

Drones “just don’t fly around the countryside and look for something,” said Marc Thiessen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Drones are only as effective as the intelligence networks on the ground. I can guarantee these networks in Nigeria are not the same as in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. The drones are a great tool, but like everything in intelligence, one tool isn’t a silver bullet.”

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