Unmanned aircraft offer warfare with fewer casualties
Civil contractors make the final technical checks on a German Bundeswehr armed forces Heron 1 drone before it takes off for a mission in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan recently. Photo: Reuters
Achieving military objectives with as little cost as possible has been a goal of armed forces and their political masters at least since David slew Goliath.
In our own century, the steady stream of Australian battlefield deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan has kept this goal at the centre of politico-military strategy. The much larger, though less publicised, numbers of war-caused injuries and illness provide an additional incentive to look for ways of limiting the impact on us while inflicting maximum damage on enemies.
Are ''drones'' the answer to this age-old problem? Drones are more correctly titled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or systems (UASs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs). They may or may not carry weapons. (There are non-military versions but they are not our concern here.) Theoretically, drone warfare allows targets to be identified from a distance (up to thousands of kilometres away) and destroyed either by the drone itself or by ground troops or ordnance.
The drone operator remains out of harm's way. This is a key military argument for the use of drones: they are said to reduce the potential for ''our'' casualties on the ground or in the air, indeed, they may make expeditionary forces (like those sent to Iraq and Afghanistan) unnecessary.
This has a political dimension as well: Australian governments deploying drones could continue to pay premiums on the American alliance insurance policy without the political flak that attaches to military coffins.
Drones are said to allow surgical strikes, reducing civilian casualties but taking out the terrorist targets which bulk large in present military scenarios. An American philosopher, Bradley Strawser, has even argued that ''drones can be a morally preferable weapon of war if they are capable of being more discriminate than other weapons that are less precise and expose their operators to greater risk''.
The surgical nature of the strikes would be assured by a strong accountability regime, as the Americans say they have at present, although they are reluctant to release figures about the number of ''misses'' by drones being used against targets in Pakistan and elsewhere.
On the other hand, there are arguments against the military use of drones. The most simplistic argument simply asks ''why broaden the range of weapons that governments can use irresponsibly?'' - and secretly, regardless of how many ''accountable'' military decision makers have their fingers on the firing button in a bunker somewhere. It is said also that drones facilitate summary executions, their accuracy is over-stated, they increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used, they increase resentment in the war theatre (''death from the sky'') and they jeopardise the prospects of ''winning hearts and minds'' among local populations.
Moreover, by reducing the number of politically fraught military casualties, drones may create the potential for governments to prolong existing wars, enter current wars that have previously been marginal, and start new wars. The attraction of drones as an apparently efficient means of finding and killing our perceived enemies may make it easier to continue to have enemies and to target them with extreme prejudice, while ignoring peaceful ways of resolving disputes. Having to put soldiers in harm's way is a discipline on governments inclined to make rash military commitments.
Australia's drone future is, so to speak, ''up in the air''. In Senate estimates in May, the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, and his deputy, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, agreed that drones were an option that would be canvassed in the context of the current force structure review and the forthcoming defence white paper. The air force and its constituency are divided, some preferring a future that emphasises piloted vehicles, others welcoming drones as the way of the future.
The Williams Foundation, an independent advocate of ''forward-looking policies which take full advantage of the potential for air power to shape and influence regional security'' has begun a study on the potential of drones in our future defence strategy.
Already, the foundation's website contains a paper by retired Air Vice-Marshal Brian Weston on Unmanned Aerial Systems: Their Future as Australian Defence Force Capabilities. Weston's paper is thoughtful and balanced but concludes that ''it is now time to move more quickly in introducing UAS capabilities into the ADF and other national organisations''.
Any push for Australian drones could mean another drawn-out defence purchasing saga (see Collins-class submarines and joint strike fighters) and competition for funds with existing projects. Drone manufacturers would be beating a path to Russell Hill, which would not lack eager buyers and urgers. Some interested parties would advocate armed drones, others would settle for unarmed surveillance vehicles. There would be some support for developing local manufacturing capacity, with potential employment spinoffs.
Whether or not Australia should use military drones is too important an issue to leave to military men and women, serving or retired, and manufacturers. There are many more arguments pro and con than have been covered here. The political and ethical, as well as military, aspects of using drones need to be properly debated by all of us.
David Stephens considered but declined a consultancy role on the Williams Foundation project.