Defence policy issues
This chapter will consider some of the defence policy issues arising
from ADF use of unmanned platforms. These include:
the suitability of unmanned platforms to Australia's defence and
the effect of unmanned platforms on security stability;
the deployment of unmanned platforms within Australia;
perceptions and transparency of unmanned platforms;
the use of unmanned platforms for emergency assistance and
national support; and
the issue of arming ADF unmanned platforms.
The Defence Issues Paper 2014 outlined some of the ways
Australia's defence policy settings have adapted to changing strategic
circumstances over the decades. It stated:
Today, Australia's defence policies must deliver an ADF that
can effectively protect Australia from direct attack, of whatever form, and is
also able to secure and advance our interests. These include the protection of
our trade routes and prevention of non-geographic threats, such as those from
cyberspace, terrorism, transnational crime, people smuggling, and illegal
fishing. Our Alliance with the United States remains integral to our defence
and security arrangements and our changed strategic environment means that we
now work more closely with a wider range of like-minded countries in our
In this context, unmanned platforms were viewed as appropriate to
Australia's defence and strategic circumstances. For example, Northrop Grumman
considered 'Australia's geostrategic circumstances, particularly its expanse,
its vast sea/air approaches, its export/trading economy and its proximity to
Southeast Asia stress the importance of range, endurance, surveillance and
intelligence; all attributes well-suited to the use of unmanned systems'.
Maritime unmanned platforms (UUV and USVs) were perceived as having
particular relevance for Australia in the future. The importance of effective
UUVs for mine counter measures was emphasised. The potential of USVs for mine
sweeping, mine hunting and as a tool for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was also highlighted.
For example, Ms Rosalyn Turner from ASPI commented:
UUVs might suit the [ADF] particularly well given our
strategic context. With our vast maritime claim, long coastline to monitor and
a vital interest in maintaining free and open sea lines of communication in our
region, UUVs could foreseeably carry out key roles contributing to Australia's
strategic interests. UUVs won't be replacing manned submarines anytime soon.
But they're being considered as key complementary elements to address several
operational challenges navies currently face.
Northrop Grumman stated that undersea warfare was the most demanding and
dangerous operational environment and argued it was 'one of the key domains
where Australia needs to develop a decisive capability edge'. It stated '[a]
replacement fleet for the Collins Class submarine would consume a huge
proportion of Australia's Defence budget and the complementary contribution that
UUVs can make to overall [undersea warfare] mission effectiveness needs to be
established as an integral part of the force development process'.
Similarly, Dr Andrew Carr observed:
The nature of Australia's largely maritime domain, 'air-sea
gap' concerns and emergent maritime strategy speak to a need for
underwater/surface unmanned systems. While maritime systems are currently far
less developed than aerial systems, the technology is rapidly expanding. Such
systems could help protect and expand the capacity of Australia's submarine and
surface fleets, offer remote surveillance, static and mobile elements and
enticingly— given the trend of regional arms purchases— offer promising new
Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) options.
The potential for unmanned platforms to destabilise security situations
was seen as a key risk in their potential use. Dr Clinton
Fernandes argued that as unmanned platforms improve in lethality and stealth 'one concern is that the political barriers
to war may be lowered'.
Similarly, Dr Carr stated:
One notable and under-discussed issue is that unmanned
systems may face a lower strike threshold with countries more willing to shoot
down unmanned platforms in contested territory. Clear discussion of the
acceptable norms regarding these systems will be vital, not only for Australian
interests but as an issue to lead discussion on in our region.
Dr Christian Emermark also noted that questions exist about 'the effect
that the availability of drone technology has on political decisions to use
One hypothesis worth testing is that the availability of
remotely-controlled drones (as distinct from manned aircraft) lowers the
threshold for deciding to go to war. The job of drone operators does not,
unlike a combat infantryman, involve experiencing physical risk. Thus political
leaders, having less cause to contemplate the prospect of deaths, injuries and
grieving families, might accordingly feel less anxious about using force to
solve political problems. And citizens, if not called upon to spill their own blood
for a cause, might feel less inclined to 'dissuade leaders from foreign
misadventures and ill-planned aggression'.
Ms Turner observed that '[o]ne of the major concerns that surrounded the
UK's acquisition of Reapers was that the platform might reduce the threshold
for military intervention and the use of lethal force because of the lack of
physical risk to personnel'. She stated that '[f]or some, that concern has been
heightened by the widespread use of drone strikes by the US outside traditional
The Programme on the Regulation of Emerging Military Technology, (PREMT) at Melbourne
Law School commented:
As regards [unmanned platforms], there are well‐founded concerns about
theatre of operations and the use of a technological capability that extends
hostilities beyond what may otherwise have been feasible. In the long term,
armed [unmanned platforms], the use of which entails little political risk for
a government, may contribute to the spread of low‐level
conflicts globally and reduce the willingness of states to use judicial means
to address security threats.
Operation within Australia
It has been announced that the Triton UAVs will be based at RAAF Base
Edinburgh in South Australia. However, the Northern Territory (NT) Government
urged that consideration be given to the benefits of basing ADF UAVs in the NT.
In particular, the NT Government proposed the Triton UAV fleet could be based,
operated and maintained at RAAF Base Tindal.
It noted that Darwin is the current forward operating base for the P3 Orion
maritime patrol aircraft. At the April hearing, Mr Stephen Mencshelyi
from the NT Government elaborated:
The benefits include dramatic cost savings achieved through
basing close to the area of operations, whereby eliminating the flying time
from southern bases to reach their primary-operating environment. Savings in
fuel, aircraft maintenance, airframe hours and manning also provide
opportunities for additional cost savings and response times, particularly in
response to humanitarian and natural disasters, and provide initial situational
awareness and damage assessments rapidly. In addition to cost benefits there
are capability benefits, with aircraft able to spend more time on tasks. The
Northern Territory also offers the benefits of low air-traffic density and
existing military and civil air-traffic interaction.
Humanitarian emergencies and national support
Currently the ADF's manned platforms contribute to a variety of national
support and emergency response operations such as disaster relief. In 2011,
during Operation Queensland Flood Assist, all three services provided assets
for tasks such as airlift support, search and rescue, aerial survey and the
assessment of underwater hazards as part of the Australian Government's
emergency response to flood affected areas of Queensland. RAAF AP3C
Orion aircraft and RAN patrol boats routinely contribute to efforts to manage
civil maritime security as part of the interagency taskforce Border Protection
Unmanned platforms were perceived by a number of submitters as providing
additional opportunities for the ADF to conduct national support tasks such as
assistance during emergencies. These included extreme weather monitoring,
bushfire monitoring, damage assessments after civil emergencies, search and
rescue, detection of illegal fishing and other border protection functions.
Mr Ken Crowe, from Northrop Grumman, highlighted that Australia's immediate
region was prone to natural disasters and suggested that the response to those
'disasters can be aided by the application of unmanned technology'.
Mr Brian Weston also commented:
With the emergence of
UAS, there is considerable scope for UAS to play an increasing role in national
support tasks where their persistence, surveillance capabilities and economy of
operation are advantageous.
When the then Minister of Defence, Senator the Hon David Johnston, announced
that Australia would maintain a Heron capability he stated that 'while Defence
resources are primarily used for national security purposes, if the Heron was
available it could be used at the request of state governments for civilian
roles, such as assistance during natural disasters'. Defence noted that while
the ADF's 'limited unmanned platform capabilities have been employed
extensively and successfully in combat-support...[they] have not been employed in
border security, civil emergency support or regional cooperation tasking in
Australia or its region'.
However it also indicated that as the capabilities of unmanned platforms
develop they 'could easily be extended to support domestic, regional and border
Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Davies predicted that 'the versatility of unmanned
aerial vehicles will mean that they become a vital part of how emergency
response is done around the world'.
The Australian Red Cross outlined that there were a number of issues
which have been identified by the international community as problematic in the
use of military platforms (including unmanned platforms) deployed for
humanitarian purposes. However, it considered that the Australian government
has adopted a conservative approach to the use of military assets to assist
with the delivery of humanitarian aid in an overseas context. It commented:
It is worth noting
that in natural disaster response in the Asia-Pacific region, affected States'
militaries play a substantial role in disaster response and many governments
look to their militaries to be a principal responder. In a natural disaster
environment, military deployments to a disaster zone may follow government
direction and provide rapid deployment of medical, logistics and engineering
capabilities. Military assets (planes, helicopters or UAVs) may be used for
immediate damage assessments and such use is increasing, for example in the
Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. In a domestic situation when responding
to a natural disaster, the use of Australian military assets is considered
supplementary to civilian responders when additional resources are required.
Such use however, from experience, is thought to be uncontroversial.
However, the Australian Red Cross also highlighted the United Nations
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) advice which suggested
that UAVs operated by the military should follow existing guidelines which require
humanitarian organisations to ensure that:
- any humanitarian civil-military relationship or interaction does not
impact principled humanitarian action [neutral, impartial, independent]; [and]
the use of military assets in support of humanitarian operations is
appropriate and in accordance with international guidelines, i.e. that military
assets provide a unique capability, availability and timeliness not possessed
by the humanitarian community (i.e. "last resort").
The OCHA paper noted:
In many cases, UAVs will clearly provide a "unique
capability", particularly in areas where humanitarian access is restricted
due to security or terrain. However, it is harder to show that the use of UAVs
by military or peacekeeping actors will not impact humanitarian principles,
because this depends on the perceptions of local communities and stakeholders, not
the mission per se. Humanitarians will have to consider whether the military is
a party to the conflict, and if association with them would impact the
perceived or actual neutrality, impartiality and operational independence of
the overall humanitarian effort.
Other possible uses of ADF UAVs were raised. For example, the Australian
Federal Police (AFP) argued that the use of 'UAVs in areas such as the Torres
Straight and Northern Australia would provide significant opportunities to
mitigate the AFP's current vulnerabilities in its covert surveillance
operations'. It noted that the use of unmanned platforms by the ADF could
provide opportunities 'to collaborate and share imagery information between
various government agencies in the appropriate circumstances'. However, the AFP
cautioned that a regulatory framework would need to be 'established for the
effective exchange of imagery'.
Despite these new opportunities for the use of UAVs, concerns were also
expressed that the use of 'military-grade' unmanned platforms may not be an
effective use of resources in non-military situations. For example, Cobham
Aviation Services commented:
[I]t needs to be
noted that the use of high end military ISR capability, [UAVs] or manned, to
deliver civil surveillance outcomes is a misuse of military capability and is
provided at very high cost to government. This is because military platforms
are designed, developed, crewed, trained for and operated for use in complex
hostile conflict environments.
Perceptions and transparency
The negative perception of unmanned platforms was identified as a key
risk of their acquisition and deployment, particularly if they were armed.
Concerns were expressed that an ill-informed view was held by the general
public in relation to unmanned platforms. Dr Andrew Davies from ASPI stated:
[B]ecause of the way
that armed drones have entered the public consciousness as weapons in the
unconventional part of the 'war on terror', they've the potential to draw
opposition from the public and from neighbouring governments...So if Australia
was to purchase Reapers or a similar system, there's the potential to cause
alarm, among both Australians and our neighbours.
Dr Davies suggested these concerns could be allayed by making clear
public statements about the concept of operations for the UAVs and 'ensuring
they are unambiguously and visibly under military control'. Ms Turner,
also from ASPI, argued that Australia could learn from the UK's experience in
the acquisition and use of armed Reaper UAVs. In particular:
The UK has made an effort
to embrace transparency around its use of Reapers in military operations, most
likely to allay speculation that it conducts covert strikes that have proven
unpopular for the US. The UK has made data available on Reaper strikes and the
Ministry of Defence (MoD) and British government have publicly answered
questions about their use through formal inquiry...The MoD has also conducted a
PR campaign by supporting media events intended to 'dispel some of the myths
that surround the use of UAVs' and raise awareness of how it uses the
The Human Right Law Centre argued that there was an 'accountability
vacuum' in relation to the use of military UAVs. It noted that '[d]espite the
ongoing calls by the United Nations and other bodies, and various promises by
governments, there continues to be a lack of transparency surrounding drone
use'. The Human Rights Law Centre noted:
In the United Kingdom, the Royal Air Force is accountable to
Parliament through the Ministry of Defence, which allows for some transparency.
The Ministry does not, however, comment publicly on the use of remotely piloted
aircraft in connection with special operations. Under some of its operating
procedures, every remotely piloted aircraft weapons discharge is internally
reviewed and a mission report, including video footage and communications
reports, prepared and reviewed. Where there is an indication of civilian
casualties, the incident is referred to a body whose personnel are independent
of the chain of command involved in the strike.
Defence also highlighted 'perception management' as a potential risk in
the use of unmanned platforms. It noted that '[p]oor perceptions created by
illegal or uncertified civilian use of unmanned platforms within the domestic
community in particular, has the potential to generate an incorrect perception
of the systems used by the military'. Defence stated it had
been 'engaged with Royal Air Force (RAF) regarding their experience with the
introduction into service of the REAPER platform'. It noted that the 'ADF does
not currently report on operations' but that changes to reporting practices may
be considered 'should the ADF procure armed [UAVs]'.
The number of personnel required to operate and maintain unmanned
platforms was frequently raised as one of the criteria to judge their value.
For example, Mr Anthony Patterson, from Cobham Aviation Services, considered
the reference to 'unmanned' was inappropriate as the 'employment level, or the
relative number of people required to operate [a] system for the same unit of
surveillance outcome, is about the same between manned aircraft and unmanned
The Heron UAV used by the ADF in Afghanistan utilised a small team to
operate it from a ground control station. This team could involve an air
vehicle operator (pilot), an ISR officer, a payload operator and an electronic
warfare operator as well as other specialist technicians or linguists.
Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Davies suggested to the committee that the impression
that 'it takes fewer people to operate remotely piloted aircraft' may be
overstated. He stated that the 'Air Force is of the view that our acquisition
of Triton as part of the long-term maritime capability will, basically, be
replacing a P3 squadron with a Triton squadron, in terms of people'.
Defence acknowledged that '[r]ecruiting and retaining sufficient numbers
of qualified personnel to operate and support emerging unmanned platform
capabilities that can operate 24/7, such as the Triton, will be a challenge for
the ADF in managing its workforce'. It noted it was 'currently planning the
required personnel support structures to do this with specific consideration
being undertaken under the Force Structure Review'.
Defence also identified that policy consideration was required in areas such as
'personnel management, training/competency requirements and medical standards
for [UAV] operators'.
Having sufficient personnel to operate, maintain and analyse the ISR
material produced by unmanned platforms was highlighted as a significant issue.
For example, Ms Rosalyn Turner from ASPI noted that, since acquiring armed
Reapers from the US in 2007, the United Kingdom (UK) has extensively deployed
One of the issues
arising from such a high operational tempo has been maintaining capacity to
resource the platforms. The UK's Select Committee on Defence highlighted a lack
of UAV operators and imagery analysts as a key challenge shortly after the
Reapers began operations. (The US Air Force (USAF) has also struggled in this
It's hard to predict
whether an Australian fleet would see as much action, and it would of course
depend on the number and type of operations to which the ADF was committed.
Nevertheless it's been reported that there's currently a shortage of drones
available to confront the challenges in Iraq and Syria, which suggests they'll
remain a sought-after capability for some time. If the ADF decides to acquire
these platforms, it'd be well placed to start the process of recruiting and
training personnel early to head off challenges faced by the RAF and USAF.
At the hearing, Ms Turner observed that Australia could benefit from the
experiences of the US and the UK UAV programs:
Starting early is
really important—and definitely using our allies' capabilities and facilities
in terms of maintaining and enhancing our personnel's capabilities and training
in those areas. And the US has certainly started targeting younger people,
targeting different people, in terms of recruiting drone operators, because of
course this is very different from recruiting fighter pilots.
Armed unmanned platforms
The decision to acquire armed unmanned platform was highlighted as a
significant one. The Defence submission emphasised the Defence Capability Plan
'does not currently contain a project to procure an armed unmanned platform or
It noted that the 'procurement of an armed UAS capability remains the subject
of the Force Structure Review'. At the April hearing, Air
Vice-Marshal Davies commented that 'Air Force think that an armed medium-altitude,
long-endurance vehicle gives us the tactical flexibility to have a greater
impact on the battlefield'.
Dr Davies outlined two applications for armed UAVs: armed reconnaissance
'being able to survey the battlefield and the wider environment, with the
ability to engage the enemy if necessary'; and 'flying fire support for land
force elements that find themselves under fire or otherwise in danger'.
However, Dr Derek Rogers, from Saab Australia, commented that 'there is
not always a need to weaponise such systems to be effective in a number of
operational scenarios'. He noted that 'the ability of unmanned platforms 'to
shadow, loiter, picket, record video evidence and standoff may be a valuable
deterrent in anti-piracy operations for example'.
If Australia decided to acquire armed UAVs some argued there was a need
to establish rigid standards of practice in relation to their use. For example,
Dr Christian Enemark observed that 'some decision-makers within Britain and the
United States have already expressed concerns about the need to champion
normative limitations on the use of drones'.
Similarly, Mr Ben Fitzegerald from the Lowy Institute has argued that to 'have
a credible voice in developing appropriate norms and policies for drone use on
the world stage, Australia must establish itself as a leading operator of drone
capability, including armed variants'. He stated:
The greatest risk to Australian interests is not that other
nations will acquire drones and use them against us...The more likely risk is
that some nations will use them in ways that undermine the rules-based
international order that Australia subscribes to, or will increase regional
instability through risky use...These incidents are likely to increase in
frequency as nations acquire drones and seek to push the boundaries of international
norms or re-establish them in their favour.
The Human Rights Law Centre also argued that, as unmanned platforms are
increasing used by State and non-State actors, it was in Australia's interest
that they are used according to law. It considered it was 'critical that a
rules-based order for the use of drones is established and followed'.
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