This chapter will examine the effectiveness of unmanned platforms. This
the advantages of unmanned platforms;
the cost-effectiveness of unmanned platforms;
unmanned platforms in contested areas;
the reliance of unmanned platforms on communications;
the complementary role of unmanned platforms to manned platforms;
the reliability of unmanned platforms.
Advantages of unmanned platforms
A large number of submissions highlighted the technical advantages of
unmanned platforms, particularly UAVs. Factors which were commonly listed
risk reduction for pilots and assets;
longer flight times and the ability to 'loiter' in target areas;
larger geographic areas which can be covered for ISR;
stealthy operation, lower observability profile, smaller size;
lower cost of acquisition and operation than existing manned
platforms including training, components and maintenance;
flexible and reconfigurable payloads; and
less demand on pilots/operators with the capacity to follow
pre-programmed flight paths.
Defence characterised the ADF's adoption of unmanned platforms as
occurring for the same reasons they had been taken up in the commercial sector—to
reduce risks to personnel and to extend capabilities.
Several contributors summarised the advantages of unmanned platforms as being a
preferred alternative for 'dull, dirty, dangerous' missions. For example
Northrop Grumman explained:
Dull missions might include lengthy intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions that involve prolonged periods
of monitoring and observation. Dirty missions are those that might expose
personnel to hazards, such as when undertaking chemical, biological, and
nuclear detection operations. Dangerous missions are those that might be
conducted in lethal operational environments. Unmanned systems perform all of
these missions with far less risk to the operating personnel.
Defence highlighted that unmanned systems are often able to provide a
capability not previously available to commanders:
The persistent surveillance provided by UAS platforms such as
the Shadow, Heron and (in future) Triton, is considered a force multiplier for forces
being supported. The utility of smaller platforms is that they can provide
small ground elements with an airborne surveillance asset not previously
available. Due to the smaller size of unmanned systems they are more
economical, and can typically fly longer without refuelling or the risk of
pilot fatigue. The ability to supplement traditional air elements in a
cost-effective manner is a principal advantage of the smaller unmanned systems.
Persistence was repeatedly identified as the key advantage of unmanned
platforms, particularly UAVs. For example, Mr Brian Weston observed that aerial
persistence was previously only achievable 'by cycling multiple manned
aircraft...rapidly running down fleet and crew availability in the process'.
Similarly, Mr Anthony Patterson from Cobham Aviation Services, stated:
With a manned aircraft you are essentially limited, depending
on the crewing arrangements, to somewhere between six and 12 hours, and you
have to return to a base of operations to swap out the crew. The real benefit
of unmanned systems in the space is the fact that they can stay airborne,
depending on the altitudes you are operating at, for 20 to 40-plus hours.
A number of complexities were observed in relation to the cost
effectiveness of unmanned platforms. Several submitters and witnesses
emphasised the 'back-end' of unmanned platform systems needed to be considered
as well as the 'front-end' of the platform itself. Defence commented:
Notwithstanding that the direct per hour operating costs
associated with unmanned systems may be cheaper than traditional manned
platforms, the total cost of the capability must be considered. Unmanned
systems still require 'human-in-the-loop' procedures for operations, maintenance,
and, where relevant, ISR data exploitation and dissemination. For systems that
are capable of operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the manpower overhead
for operating and data processing becomes significant. In the case of UAS, the
simple metric of cost per flying hour is not an accurate reflection of the true
cost of operations.
However, Defence also observed that for UGVs and UUVs involved
explosives neutralisation or naval mine detection 'the cost of the system can
easily be mitigated against the potential price of a human life'.
Similarly, Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Davies made the point that 'economy' is not
just measured in dollars but is also 'about the ability to conduct the
If you were to consider, in a maritime domain, the
acquisition of Triton, we are able to reach areas in Australia's maritime
approaches that we could get persistence in, to identify whatever the mission
is of the day for further ranges—we can stay for longer, we can gather more
data and then make an assessment beyond that. The range of Triton is
considerable; it is an economy of its own.
Northrop Grumman described the assertion that UAVs are cheaper to buy or
operate as 'overly simplistic and misleading'. It argued that a shift in
perspective was essential 'to ensure that Australian force structure reviews no
longer simply focus on platforms, but systems'.
It argued the 'up front capital comparisons with manned aircraft are often
misleading as they are rarely based on a credible comparable operational
metric, such as "surveillance product per square km"; rather simply
being based on the "cost per flight hour" a measure that often bears
little relationship to the "cost per unit of operational capability".
Operators of military aircraft systems may point out that a
fleet of UAS requires a significant number of ground based operators to analyse
the enormous amount of data collected by the systems, and to support missions
spanning 24 hours or longer...
The increased use of civilian contractors and non-specialist personnel
to operate unmanned platforms was a related issue. It was noted during the
inquiry that Australia had been slow in adopting a civilian contractor base for
UAV support for forward deployed areas of operation. It was also argued that
efficiencies were being missed through an operational model of one pilot per
aircraft and aircraft maintenance undertaken by trade-qualified aircraft
technicians. Potentially, multiple unmanned platforms could be controlled from
one ground station with significant maintenance being undertaken by non-technical
The extra ISR capabilities of unmanned platforms were perceived as
creating additional demands on processing, exploiting and disseminating (PED)
intelligence systems. Mr Weston noted that the raw data produced by UAVs 'is of
little use unless it can be filtered, assessed, analysed and disseminated to
where it is most needed. He noted 'raw ISR data is perishable, so unless the
surveillance data can be transformed into a refined and deliverable
intelligence product quickly, the full capabilities of ISR UAS will remain
Dr Andrew Davies from Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) described
the change in the volume of ISR as 'extraordinary'. He noted that other
countries 'have struggled with analysing all of the data coming back from
high-endurance drones' as their systems of imagery analysis and intelligence
exploitation were set up for static imagery rather than streaming imagery which
required a different skill set.
Similarly, Northrop Grumman stated:
[W]hile unmanned systems greatly enhance Australia's ISR
capabilities, such enhancement is dependent on a capable and sophisticated
processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) capability. The risk is that "front
end" platform investment without the "back end" investment in
supporting data processing and analysis systems will do little to improve
national capabilities. ISR data is perishable; it must be processed and
analysed quickly, then speedily passed to decision makers and end users. That
is the role of a PED capability – without a co-investment in PED to match the
platform procurement, the risk is that the value of the overall capability is
Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Davies acknowledged:
[T]he operation of the vehicle is not where the
manpower-intensive elements are. It is in how much data is collected, what you
do with the data and how you disseminate it. It is sometimes called 'the back
shops' because of what you do with it and the analysis. That is where you can
have a reasonably large personnel bill and that is where we need to begin to
understand where opportunities lie.
At the hearing, Rear Admiral Peter Quinn noted that all modern platforms
coming into service, whether manned or unmanned, were gathering more data that
Defence is aware of that challenge and it is working to make
sure that it can get the most out of these new platforms and all of the data
that they provide...It is a combination of getting the right people, the right
training, the right systems and the right processes in place to fuse all of
this information together. This is for the platforms which are coming into
service, not necessarily all of the platforms we have now. We know we have a
challenge; it is being addressed. We know that we will have to ramp up in that
While submissions were clear on the technical advantages of UAVs in
uncontested airspace, there was less clarity in relation to their value in
contested airspace. A number of examples were mentioned where UAVs had been
ineffective in contested airspace. These included:
in 1999, a number of US Predator UAVs were shot down during
operations over the former Yugoslavia;
in 2002, a US Predator UAV was shot down by an Iraqi aircraft;
in 2008, a number of Georgian surveillance UAVs were destroyed by
air defence systems and manned aircraft;
in 2011, Iranian forces captured a Lockheed Martin RQ-170
Sentinel, a stealth HALE UAV reportedly operated by the US Air Force for the
Central Intelligence Agency.
Figure 3.1 – Images from video feed of Georgian UAV
Dr Davies considered that '[in] a more contested environment in which
the adversary has a sophisticated anti-air capability, something more capable
than Reaper would be required'. He stated:
For now, that would likely be a manned strike platform with
support from electronic warfare and situational awareness platforms. In the
future, there's likely to be higher performance (and almost certainly higher
cost) unmanned options such as the stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles
under development, such as the American X-47B and European Taranis...
Others emphasised the potential advantages of UAVs in contested
airspace. For example, Flight Officer Gary Martinic wrote:
UAV designs of the future will likely be capable of 'hyper-manoeuvrability'
(or extreme lateral acceleration), achieved through advances in avionics and
the use of composite materials and stealthy airframes, which would give them considerably
enhanced ability to avoid detection by radar. Contrarily, the extreme g-forces generated
could not be withstood by a human pilot sitting at the controls. UAV designs of
the future will also likely be more rugged, giving them enhanced levels of 'battle
damage survivability' in situations of air-to-air combat.
Communications and navigation
The reliance of unmanned platforms on communications with controllers and
external guidance (such as GPS navigation) was highlighted during the inquiry.
UAVs may be vulnerable to a variety of communications and cyber threats.
For example, Dr Clinton Fernandes noted:
For all the technical advances in endurance, sensors and
firepower, the key vulnerability in drones remains the potential for
interference and jamming of GPS signals. They can be overridden by more
powerful signals from television towers, or spoofed so as to make them believe
that they are somewhere other than where they actually are.
Defence noted that 'reliable and predictable system operation is
predicated on a reliable data link, and/or system automation'. Defence also observed
that 'the data links that control unmanned systems and deliver ISR information
back to the Commander in the battle-space are potentially prone to cyber attack
Notably, one of the small projects being undertaken by the DSTO relates to how
'unmanned aircraft might cope in an environment where GPS navigation may be
Cobham Aviation Services also emphasised:
The challenge with [UAVs] are the communication links, as the
sensors on board are able to collect a vast array of data that has to be passed
to a ground station and/or troops on the ground in order to be able to become 'actionable
intelligence'. Particularly where beyond line of sight operations are involved
high bandwidth satellite datalinks are required.
It was also noted during the inquiry that in order to appropriately
control the use of force within the restraints of the relevant rules of
engagement the communications infrastructure between unmanned platform and the
operator must be robust. The problem of latency in the operation of remotely
operated UAVs was also raised. Flying Officer Martinic explained:
This is the time delay between when an operator sends a
signal to a UAV and the time it takes to respond. While this would usually only
be a matter of seconds (or micro-seconds), it is relevant to the argument as to
the responsiveness of UAVs versus the reaction time of on-board pilots.
Complementary role to manned platforms
There was a broad consensus during the inquiry that unmanned platforms
were unlikely to replace manned platforms for the ADF in the medium term.
Instead, a complementary model for unmanned platforms with overlapping
capabilities was perceived the optimal mix. For example, Mr Weston described an
emerging new force structure paradigm:
complementary manned and unmanned air capabilities which exploit the advantages
of both manned and unmanned air capabilities. Typically this means that an
unmanned but persistent ISR capability might be combined with a manned airborne
response capability to provide a more capable and flexible defence force.
Northrop Grumman also described 'a new force structure paradigm' with
'manned aircraft and unmanned aerial systems working in a complementary
fashion, to maximise overall operational effectiveness, and to minimise the
risk to aircrew'. It noted that '[a]nalysis, combined with a significant amount
of operational experience has proven that a "Hybrid Fleet" of manned
and unmanned systems delivers a higher level of capability at significantly
lower operating costs'.
Mr Ken Crowe, from Northrop Grumman, expanded on this complementary
relationship between manned and unmanned platforms (such as between the
unmanned Triton complementing the manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft).
helicopter goes out and does the dull, dirty boring missions at three am—the
comms relay missions, the ISR missions that nobody wants to do—in dangerous or
boring situations. And that leaves and preserves the manned helicopter to
respond and to keep to its core war fighting mission. By complementing the manned
and the unmanned together, you extend the life of the manned helicopter, you
reduce its utilisation down to its core functions and you off-load a lot of the
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance onto the platform that is best
suited for it. The skill sets are complementary. The same skill sets relating
to interpretation of the battlefield and the interpretation of the sensor data
that exist on the helicopter exist back in the ship, looking at the screens
from the unmanned helicopter. The maintenance activities are more or less the
same—they are both helicopters...
Reliability of UAVs
There were differing views expressed on the reliability of unmanned
platforms. Several contributors suggested that large scale military UAVs have
experienced a higher failure rate than manned platforms leading to concerns
about their use over civilian areas or interactions with civil aviation. For
example, the Northern Territory Government observed:
One of the ongoing issues associated with operating unmanned
aerial platforms is the public perception of safety associated with the use of
those systems. In particular, the general public have concerns with the
likelihood of unmanned aerial platforms colliding with commercial or other
military aircraft over populated areas.
Similarly, PREMT highlighted that '[s]afety concerns are most severe
when it comes to [UAVs], especially UAVs that are large enough and fly high
enough to interfere with civil aviation'. 
Dr Brendan Gogarty also commented:
Drones experience much higher accident rates than manned
vehicles (up to 100 times higher), but the reasons for this are more complex
than simply technical. In fact they are more related to controller complacency
and the reduced feedback that results from removing the pilot from the
cockpit...as much as they related to technical faults.
A recent Washington Post report highlighted the relatively high
number of incidents involving US military UAVs. The common causes of incidents
a limited ability to 'detect and avoid';
persistent mechanical defects;
unreliable communication links.
Significant incidents included a US operated Shadow UAV colliding
mid-air with a US Air Force C-130 cargo plane. Notably, in 2010, it was reported
that an RAAF Heron crashed short of the airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan and
required costly repairs.
On 1 November 2010, ADF's Herons in Afghanistan were suspended from flying for
24 hours following 'a series of landing gear malfunctions'.
Defence noted that the majority of large complex UAVs designed for
combat operations were introduced into service 'with little consideration to
peace time operations in civilian airspace'. It stated that the 'ADF continues
to develop its unmanned capabilities responsibly' and considered that any transport,
health and safety implications posed by the use of unmanned platforms are 'presently
insignificant, given the scale of operations and maturity of these capabilities'.
At the April hearing, Air Vice-Marshal Davies highlighted the high number of
flying hours of military UAVs and argued that '[t]he statistics are showing
clearly that these are safe vehicles'.
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