My Op Ed column in the Daily Advertiser for 14 March 2017Australia set to ramp up the lethal power of its drones?

by ray goodlass

 Hot on the news that President Trump plans to make America’s nuclear arsenal even larger than it already is, and that he is to spend an extra $70 (Aust) billion on America’s conventional defence forces comes news that Australia is moving towards acquiring armed drones, a military tool of questionable ethics.

In detail, it was revealed on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on 7 March that Australia is considering the purchase of possibly armed drones. The two salient points are whether or not the drones will be armed, and if so whether the use of armed drones in warfare is ethical.

Firstly, the ethical issues. Though Australia already uses drones for intelligence and surveillance, adding weaponised ones would represent a significant escalation for the Defence Forces, one which we should oppose.

As part of the war on terror president Barack Obama approved drone strikes mainly in the Middle East, which are estimated to have killed around 7,000 people, some found to be innocent bystanders, otherwise euphemistically known as ‘collateral damage’.

The killings sparked political controversy and ethical concerns, voiced in newspapers and spilling over in to  social media, television documentaries, and film such as ‘Eye in the Sky’, amongst others. Over and over again we have seen these drones piloted and given the order to fire their missiles from bunkers in the Nevada desert, close to Las Vegas, which is no doubt useful for the R&R of these drone jockeys.

Here planning is already well advanced within Defence for future combat missions using remotely piloted aircraft capable of killing. I wonder from where they will be controlled? Pine Gap, perhaps?

Despite such concerns, Defence Minister Marise Payne, in typical double-speak weasel words, said Australia would always consider its legal and ethical obligations “It’s really about extending the impact of what we can do in the Air Force, minus issues like fatigue or those sorts of things and ensuring that we have an Air Force that is as capable as it can possibly be” she told 7.30.

Rather more open and honest was last year’s Defence White Paper, which confirmed that the Government would “introduce enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, including armed medium-altitude unmanned aircraft in the early 2020s, with regular capability upgrades to follow”.

Apart from the inclusion of the word ‘armed’, the strategic document offered very little detail, except to say the “unmanned aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to a range of missions including counter-terrorism missions overseas”.

The issue of the two types of armed drones the Defence Force are considering is also of concern, for though one of the  frontrunners in the race for the contract is the MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by US Company General Atomics, the other is the Heron TP, made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

IAI, a state-owned company, does not publicly acknowledge its product as an armed drone but stresses the plane can carry “anything” up to 1,000 kilograms, which presumably refers to bombs and/or missiles. It is public knowledge that the Heron TP has most certainly been used in this way against Palestinian targets in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, again often involving the euphemistically termed ‘collateral damage’.

So taking everything into account we have to ask ourselves if the acquisition of these armed drones by the ADF is a step forward or a descent into an unethical quagmire.