The committee's terms of reference direct consideration of the
'potential use' of unmanned platforms by the Australian Defence Force (ADF)
which invites speculation about an area of defence technology which is rapidly evolving.
A degree of caution is warranted. Nonetheless, it is clear that increasing
utilisation of unmanned platforms by military forces, including the ADF, will
be an important trend in the next decades.
The development and utilisation of military unmanned platforms can be
viewed as a 'megatrend'—the
result of improvements in a number of areas of technology including computing,
automation, communications, sensors and precision munitions. Unmanned platforms
appear well suited to Australia's defence and strategic circumstances. Australia's
vast land mass, distant population bases, offshore assets and remote terrain,
as well as its history of joint overseas operations with allies, align well
with the features of unmanned platforms. Unmanned platforms have proven they
can extend the reach of the ADF as a highly skilled but numerically small
military force. Their range, persistence and additional functionality can
provide the ADF with improved capabilities.
Unmanned platforms will also enhance the ADF's ability to contribute to
the response to emergencies and national support tasks such as the regulation
of Australia's borders through Border Protection Command. In a budgetary
environment where additional efficiencies are always being sought, unmanned
platforms can also be cost-effective alternatives to manned platforms in some
circumstances. There is the potential for unmanned platforms to contribute to
ADF operations in a broad range of areas beyond aerial surveillance. These
could include as undersea sensors, emergency battlefield medical assistance and
as key parts of the ADF's logistical operations.
However, despite the advantages of unmanned platforms, there is a risk
in viewing any new technology as a panacea. While their capabilities have
proven their value in permissive areas, it is unclear how these capabilities
will perform in a contested environment. Further, it is unclear how identified
vulnerabilities such as communications will be resolved. Manned platforms will
remain the key ADF assets for the foreseeable future. As new unmanned platforms
are adopted, the ADF should also be cautious not to diminish existing manned capabilities
due to these acquisitions. As the Minister of Defence has acknowledged 'the ADF's
reliance on high-technology enablers to undertake modern operations is also a
potential vulnerability that needs to be managed'.
The management of perceptions in relation to ADF unmanned platforms was
highlighted as a significant issue in relation to their deployment. As the
Heron and Triton commence operations in civilian airspace, Australians may be
concerned due to misconceptions about their capabilities and functions. In
order to counter the 'dark mystic' of unmanned platforms, Defence should assess
its public communications strategies to ensure Australians are able to receive
accurate and timely information about the use of unmanned platforms by the ADF.
The reliability of unmanned platforms, their operation in populated areas and
interaction with civilian aviation should all be addressed.
The committee recommends that the Department of Defence strengthen its
public communications in relation to military unmanned platforms.
The acquisition of armed unmanned platforms by the ADF (particularly
MALE UAV) was seen as inevitable by several contributors to the inquiry. However,
in the view of the committee, the increased integration of UAV into ADF
operations will lead to a number of changes planning and deployment procedures.
There are some areas where the committee understands the characterisation, made
by some during the inquiry, that an unmanned armed aircraft simply removes the pilot
and cockpit to a different location. There are other areas where the situation more
complex. For example, while unmanned platforms have been perceived as removing
risk and stresses for operators, it is worth noting studies from the US
military which have indicated some 'drone pilots' have suffered elevated levels
of mental health disorders.
Further, the committee considers that the use of armed unmanned platforms will
change the risk profiles of missions, a fact which would have to be considered
by commanders and politicians. Australia would also need to clearly articulate
its intentions in acquiring armed unmanned platforms in public documents that
may be considered by other nations.
It is likely that the forthcoming Force Structure Review will contain an
option for the acquisition of unmanned platforms which are capable of being
armed. In the view of the committee, this option should be taken up by the
Australian Government. The committee has not identified any reason to
negatively assess the capabilities of armed unmanned platforms solely due the
fact they are unmanned. Any decision to acquire armed unmanned platforms for
use by the ADF should be accompanied by the normal review of inputs to
capability (such as training, operating procedures and doctrine).
A policy statement governing the deployment of armed unmanned platforms
should be clearly articulated by the Australian Government. This should reinforce
Australia's longstanding commitment to use military capabilities of any kind in
accordance with Australia's international legal obligations, including
processes for review under Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva
Conventions. In making this policy statement, the Australian Government should
recognise it has the opportunity to contribute to the shaping of international norms
and practices in relation to the use of armed unmanned platforms.
The committee notes that the United Kingdom's adoption of armed unmanned
platforms provides valuable guidance for Australia. In line with this approach,
appropriate transparency measures regarding the use of armed unmanned platforms
by the ADF could also be outlined in the policy statement on the use of
unmanned platforms. However, the committee also recognises these transparency
measures will need to be balanced against the operational requirements of the
The committee recommends that the Australian Defence Force acquire armed
unmanned platforms when the capability requirement exists and the Australian
Government make a policy statement regarding their use. This policy statement will:
affirm that armed unmanned platforms will be used in accordance
with international law;
commit that armed unmanned platforms will only be operated by the
Australian Defence Force personnel; and
include appropriate transparency measures governing the use of
armed unmanned platforms.
Civilian support of unmanned platforms
Arguments were made during the inquiry regarding the potential benefits expanded
use of civilian operation and support of military unmanned platforms. In the
view of the committee, the direct operation of unmanned platforms must continue
to be undertaken by the optimal mix of uniformed ADF, public servants or
contract personnel taking into account maintenance, training and operational
requirements. Considerations of the status of civilians and the laws of armed
conflict should also be taken into account. In terms of other civilian support,
there will need to be a careful balance between the cost-effectiveness of
civilian support to ADF unmanned platforms (such as maintenance) and the
potential risks of civilian involvement with military operations. This includes
the risk that those civilians involved in the support of ADF unmanned platforms
may lose protection under the law of armed conflict. However, this is not a new
challenge for the ADF and the committee expects it will be managed
International humanitarian law training
Australia's military has a recognised record of compliance with the law
of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. The committee was pleased
to receive evidence from the Australian Red Cross regarding the high level of
engagement in Australia in relation to international humanitarian law.
The introduction of armed unmanned platforms will need to address the law of
armed conflict and international humanitarian law in the context of managing
fundamental inputs to capability (such as training and doctrine).
The committee recommends that the Australian Defence Force notify the
Australian Government of measures taken to address any identified gaps training
and dissemination programs regarding the law of armed conflict and international
humanitarian law when armed unmanned platforms are acquired.
A mixed/hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned platforms is likely to be
the future force structure model of modern military forces, including the ADF.
In this context, some manned platforms acquired in the near future which will
have long operational life-cycles will need (where appropriate) to be capable
of supporting, controlling and deploying unmanned platforms. For example, a
future manned submarine may need the capability to store, deploy and control maritime
unmanned platforms which may be developed in the future. The committee notes
that it appears this sort of capability integration is already being undertaken
by the ADF. For example, the recently demonstrated advanced satellite
communication and imagery display system for the C-17A Globemaster which is
capable of receiving live ISR video from the Heron UAV.
Defence has a demonstrated capacity to rapidly acquire, deploy, adapt
and sustain new unmanned platforms where they may be needed. The committee
notes that the First Principles Review calls for the integration of the Defence
Materiel Organisation into the Department as well as a change in philosophy to
see the defence industry as a fundamental input to capability. Defence must
therefore engage with the Australian industry to provide the maximum
opportunity for industry to be involved in both sustainment of unmanned
platforms as well as research development and, where possible, production of
components or in some cases, entire systems.
In relation to unmanned platforms, the Defence Capability Plan may need
to be structured flexibly to allow for technological developments. Sufficient additional
technical, engineering and scientific resources in Defence will also be
required to assess, adapt and sustain new unmanned platforms acquired by the
Research and development
The valuable Australian research and development being undertaken in
relation to unmanned platforms was highlighted during the inquiry. Further
opportunities for research and development activities important to Australia's
defence needs were also identified, in particular in the area of maritime
unmanned platforms. However, in the view of the committee many of these
research activities could be improved through enhanced collaboration and a
focus on defence priorities.
Given the importance of unmanned platforms to future defence
capabilities, the committee considers that a cooperative research centre should
be created to support research and industry in this area. The committee's view
is that the Australian Government should establish an organisation modelled on
the existing Defence Materials Technology Centre. This is a proven approach for
effective collaboration in defence technology research and development. A
Defence Unmanned Platforms Centre (DUPC) would collaboratively bring together Defence,
industry, academic and government research resources to develop new unmanned
platform technologies which will support Australia's defence capabilities. The
education program of the DUPC would provide opportunities for specialist skills
development in relation to defence-focused unmanned platforms.
The committee recommends the Australian Government:
increase funding for innovation in the relation to unmanned
establish a Defence Unmanned Platforms Centre as a cooperative
research centre in the area of military unmanned platforms.
Defence and the unmanned platform industry
Australia's industrial base has a demonstrated capacity to design and manufacture
a range of sub-systems and components for complex unmanned platforms. There are
a large number of specialist and niche opportunities in relation to unmanned
platforms for Australian industry in both the civil and military areas. In many
cases the structure of an unmanned platform is less important than the
associated software, communications, sensors, payload or integration with other
Australia has a range of existing defence industry supports and
programs. Many of these existing programs (such as the Priority Industry
Capabilities and Strategic Industry Capabilities) have not proven effective
despite being identified in the Defence and Industry Policy Statement. It is
likely that all three services will be operating a significant number of
unmanned platforms in the future. As the importance of unmanned platforms for
the ADF increases, the associated industrial requirements will need to be
reflected in the new Defence Industry Policy Statement. In particular, the
committee considers there is merit in the ACUO proposal for the creation of an
unmanned platforms national industry strategy as a part of the new Defence
Industry Policy Statement.
In recent years immediate operational needs have dictated the
acquisition of unmanned systems from overseas. However, there is scope for
improvement in Defence's industry engagement in undertaking major foreign
military sales acquisitions of unmanned platforms. A number of issues were
raised during the inquiry in relation to the local unmanned platform industry's
relationship with Defence and the communication of future capabilities needs. In
the view of the committee, resolving these issues should be a priority in the
next Defence Industry Policy Statement.
The committee recommends that strategic engagement with the Australian
unmanned platform industry be addressed in the forthcoming Defence Industry
Deployment within Australia
On 13 March 2014, the Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP,
confirmed Australia's commitment to purchase a number of Triton UAVs which
would operate alongside the manned P-8A Poseidon marine surveillance aircraft
at RAAF Base Edinburgh. Additional works to prepare the base for maintaining
and operating the Triton were also announced.
However, the committee notes that there will be benefits in the
establishment of forward operating facilities for these unmanned platforms in
the Northern Territory. This recommendation is consistent with the Australian
Government's recent White Paper into the development of Australia's north. It
recognised that Australia's north is the 'gateway for our defence and security
cooperation into the Indo-Pacific region and supports Australia's ability to
project and sustain forces into the region for surveillance, humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief'.
It is also in line with the recommendation of the Defence Force Posture Review
in 2012 for upgraded facilities at RAAF Base Tindal to support maritime surveillance
Further consideration of how ADF unmanned platforms are deployed and supported
in Australia's north should also be undertaken.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
consider establishing additional support facilities for the
Triton in the Northern Territory; and
review the future deployment and support needs of Australian
Defence Force unmanned platforms in the Australia's north.
Autonomous weapons systems
Autonomous weapons systems (AWS) were associated with the potential use
of military unmanned platforms during the inquiry. The use of force by AWS,
which could identify and attack a target without human supervision, raises a
variety of ethical, legal and public policy issues. The rapid pace of
technological change in this area demands policy-makers consider these issues. It
is a truism that the law rarely keeps pace with the development of technology.
However, in this case, there is the opportunity for international arms regulation
to keep pace with an obvious trend in military technology.
The committee notes that there are significant moral and ethical
questions about any situation where human lives could be ended by a determination
made by software. However, the committee acknowledges that contrary arguments
exist. Sufficiently advanced AWS may potentially have a higher level of
compliance with international humanitarian law than military personnel. In
situations where a stressed combat pilot may make incorrect judgements, an AWS
deployed on a UAV could potentially be programmed to exercise greater restraint
in the use of force. Nonetheless, until there is sufficient evidence that AWS
are capable of rigid adherence to the law of armed conflict their development
and deployment should be appropriately regulated.
The committee is not convinced that the use of AWS should be solely
governed by the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law and
existing arms control agreements. A distinct arms control regime for AWS may be
required in the future. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was
intended to serve as an umbrella for protocols dealing with specific weapons in
order to be capable of dealing with new technologies applied to military
circumstances. This is illustrated by Protocol IV, adopted on 13 October
1995, which restricts the use of blinding laser weapons. The development of an
additional protocol to the CCW is likely to be the most appropriate
multilateral avenue to regulate the use of AWS, including those on unmanned
Australia continues to have an important role in international disarmament
and arms controls regulation to promote global peace and security. In the view
of the committee, Australia should form and advocate a considered position which
supports the eventual establishment of international regulation on the use of
lethal force by AWS. However, the committee acknowledges that any international
regulation of AWS will take significant time as the technology evolves and
definitional issues are clarified.
The committee notes that the US Department of Defence has issued a
policy directive in relation to AWS. This directive covers a range of matters
including those related to '[s]emi-autonomous systems that are onboard or
integrated with unmanned platforms'.
In this context, the committee considers the ADF should review its own policy
directives to assess whether a similar policy directive on AWS, or amendments
to existing policies, are required.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government support international
efforts to establish a regulatory regime for autonomous weapons systems,
including those associated with unmanned platforms.
The committee recommends that following the release of the Defence White
Paper 2015 the Australian Defence Force review the adequacy of its existing
policies in relation to autonomous weapons systems.
The committee appreciates that CASA and Defence are working together to
safely integrate ADF UAVs into Australian civilian airspace. In a response to a
question on notice, Mr Mark Skidmore, Director of Aviation Safety at CASA, outlined
he had written to the Chief of the Defence Force, 'seeking his views on options
for closer cooperation between CASA and the Defence Force on regulatory
development for UAVs'.
The committee agrees with Air Vice Marshal Gavin Davies that Australia has an
opportunity to lead in integrating UAVs into civilian airspace.
While the ADF may be the pioneer users of large UAVs in Australian airspace,
Australian commercial UAV operators will also benefit as the regulatory
environment is clarified.
Currently, the RAAF has two Heron UAV which have been retained following
the ADF's Afghanistan operations. The estimated cost of the Heron is $120
million over six years, including portable ground control stations,
maintenance, logistics, training and renovations to facilities at RAAF Base
While the Heron platform is limited and consideration of air safety is clearly paramount,
the committee believes that greater utilisation of the Heron within Australian
civilian airspace could assist to build practical expertise and to test
capabilities for emergency response and national support operations.
The committee recommends that Defence, the Civil Aviation Safety
Authority and Airservices Australia increase their cooperation to facilitate the
safe use of unmanned platforms in Australian airspace.
Australia faces a growing number of strategic and defence challenges
which extend beyond the scope of the committee's inquiry. These include changing
strategic circumstances in the Asia-Pacific, long-standing issues about major defence
acquisitions and the appropriate force structure of the ADF. However, it is
clear that the effective use of unmanned platforms by the ADF will play an
increasingly important role in the response to all of these challenges. The
committee hopes this importance will be appropriately reflected in the
forthcoming Defence White Paper 2015, Force Structure Review, the Defence
Capability Plan and the Defence Industry Policy Statement.
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page