UAVs: a vital part of Australia's future?

The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in recent years has greatly heightened their public profile but also generated controversy because of their ability to attack military targets remotely and conduct covert surveillance. Nevertheless, a recent seminar, Drone Power: protecting Australia with drones, suggested that these controversial aircraft are set to play a key role in Australia’s civilian and military future. Despite a somewhat rough inception, UAVs are assuming an increasingly prominent role within the global defence arsenal and in other areas such as law enforcement, agriculture and environmental analysis. Indeed, the 2013 Defence White Paper calls for further integration of UAVs into the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Defence Minister has formally requested confidential information from the US Government regarding the performance of the long-range Triton UAV.

What are they?

As was highlighted at the seminar, UAVs are not a recent invention, having been in operation in some form since before World War II, when they acquired the nickname ‘drones’. Nowadays, the term UAV (or Umanned Aircraft System, UAS) is preferred because unmanned vehicles are a holistic capability system rather than a single autonomous flying machine.

In layman’s terms, UAVs are simply remote-controlled aircraft. They range from small hand-launched devices to the much larger MQ 4C Triton, and the MQ9 Reapers and MQ1 Predators currently used by the US in Afghanistan. They range in cost from hundreds of dollars to many millions of dollars. The ADFP 101–ADF Glossary defines UAVs as:
Powered, aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator, use aerodynamic forces to provide lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry lethal or non-lethal payloads.
Their capability has rapidly evolved and new uses are becoming apparent on a regular basis. In addition to law enforcement and military uses, UAVs have been trialled with, for example, surf-lifesaving, search and rescue, and in mining. They can be fitted out with a range of weapons and different types of imaging and detection equipment, depending on their purpose. Generally, UAVs are operated from a central headquarters to ensure the safety of the operators, although, according to a Jane’s Defence Weekly article on 15 May 2013, during a recent mission in Afghanistan the US Air Force operated reconnaissance trips from on-base to ensure real-time response rates.

The controversy

UAVs have acquired a poor public image because they are believed to cause greater unintended casualties than manned fighter planes and commercial usage has led to privacy concerns. Critics argue that operators of military UAVs treat strikes and operations like computer games and are emotionally removed from and unaffected by civilian casualties.

Unsurprisingly, this view is contested by the military. In his opening remarks at the Drone Power seminar, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, argued that it is not the capability itself that causes casualties, stating that UAVs are extremely accurate and their movements closely monitored. He argued that if more ‘collateral damage’ is incurred, then it is the training that needs to be addressed, not the capability. However, most UAV operators are highly-trained pilots, who, in the ADF at least, often return to flying manned aircraft once their rotation is finished.

Despite the controversy, UAVs have distinct benefits, some of which were highlighted at the seminar:
  • UAV missions have a reduced risk and associated cost—they are cheaper to acquire and operate than fighter jets and UAV pilots are not at any risk of injury
  • UAVs can potentially remain in the air for up to 24 hours, when it would be unrealistic to keep fighter pilots flying for as long
  • UAVs are also able to access places that would be out of limits for fighter jets and are a great complement to troops on the ground and
  • UAVs can be used for a wide-range of purposes, including law enforcement, border patrols, search and rescue, environmental analysis, geographical surveys and media coverage.

The way forward

With so many advantages and their relatively cheap cost, UAVs are likely here to stay. Public debate over their use will undoubtedly continue and CASA is currently investigating ways to regulate their civilian use. However, it also needs to be remembered that from a military perspective, the adoption of any new hardware is about gaining advantage over one’s adversaries, and arguably, UAVs provide a great advantage.

During the 1950s and 60s, Australia once led the way with cutting-edge research into UAVs. Nowadays, universities such as the University of Sydney and RMIT run extensive UAV research programs. With a fledgling UAV manufacturing industry and growing global interest in UAVs, Australia may be in a position to once again lead the way.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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