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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
14/04/2015
Potential Australian Defence Force use of unmanned platforms

DAVIES, Dr Andrew, Private capacity

TURNER, Ms Rosalyn, Private capacity

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Do either of you or both of you want to make an opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Turner : Yes, I have an opening statement prepared.

CHAIR: All right. Thank you.

Ms Turner : I would like to thank the panel for the opportunity to make a short opening statement. I am a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI, and I am here today with Dr Andrew Davies, who is Director of Research at ASPI and senior analyst in defence capability. The views we express are our own, as ASPI does not have a house view. By way of background: I have had an interest in military unmanned platforms for some time now, and I have watched with interest the maturing discussion about this in Australia. At ASPI I have written about the expanding area of unmanned underwater platforms and the US Navy's program to develop an unmanned air combat vehicle and have reflected on a decade of drone strikes in Pakistan by the CIA. My colleague Dr Davies has written extensively on ADF capability and force structure issues and has considered the addition of armed drones to the ADF's inventory for the purposes of this inquiry.

My submission looked at possible lessons for the ADF from Britain's armed drone program. As Dr Davies's submission explains, when considering the future of the ADF, a possible force structure change might be the addition of armed drones, and there are some good reasons for that to happen. An armed drone capability has the potential to offer the ADF valuable armed reconnaissance and flying fire support to troops. The persistence and endurance of these platforms, coupled with time sensitive strike, has made them highly useful assets over the past decade and a half against determined but relatively poorly equipped adversaries. However, as I will also explain, there are some potential diplomatic downsides in acquiring an armed drone that would need to be managed.

Legally, armed drones are not considered different to a manned strike aircraft under international humanitarian law, yet we are here today at this inquiry, which specifically includes in its terms of reference domestic and international legal, ethical and policy considerations concerning the ADF's use of unmanned platforms. Armed drones have entered the public consciousness as weapons in the unconventional global war on terror, which has given them, as Dr Davies states in his submission, 'a dark mystique that transcends their actual capability'. The association of armed drones with covert targeted killings means that Australia could cause alarm among its constituents and regional neighbours if it were to acquire a Reaper drone or a similar platform. Australia will need to be prepared to manage perceptions if it considers joining a relatively exclusive group of nations that currently have this capability.

While the US use of drone strikes has grabbed the most headlines, Australia is best placed to look at another ally's experience for insights and lessons on how to integrate these platforms into the ADF. As an indication of what Australia might expect should it acquire armed drones, the UK faced major concerns when it purchased a small fleet of Reapers for its operation in Afghanistan. The UK's defence force made conspicuous efforts to deal with speculation about the way their Reapers would be used, including a PR campaign aimed at dispelling myths about armed drones. This was backed up by the use of UK Reapers only in areas where the military was deployed, despite the UK's close engagement with US operations. Military control of the platforms has also allowed for a greater level of transparency from the UK. For example, you can go online right now and find updates about strikes conducted by the UK Reapers in Iraq.

This more restricted use of armed drones has been highly successful for the UK and indicates how the addition of armed reconnaissance and flying fire support can enhance military operations that Australia has been and is involved in. It also demonstrates that these platforms need not erode Australia's existing legislation about the use of force or its commitments to international humanitarian law. As Dr Davies can explain, surveillance drones have applications beyond the military, but armed drones are likely to remain exclusively under military control. That will help with regional perception management. As well, there are important structural and legislative differences between American and Australian intelligence communities which should be carefully explained if and when armed drones enter Australian service. I will stop there, and I look forward to your questions and observations.

CHAIR: Dr Davies, are you keen to make a statement?

Dr Davies : No.

CHAIR: We will go straight to questions. I will just clarify. ASPI is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

Dr Davies : ASPI is managed under a board. It is a government owned company. About 60 per cent of our revenue comes from government sources administered through the Department of Defence, and the rest comes from sponsorship, commissioned tasks and things like conference revenues.

CHAIR: What are you trying to tell us here? Are you saying that the disclosure in the UK is the way to go?

Ms Turner : I think what we are indicating is that the UK is perhaps the likely country to look to for Australia in terms of its experience in acquiring the Reaper platform. Whereas Israel and the US, the two other countries that have used armed drones, have their own drone programs up and running—armed drone capabilities—the UK was able to acquire a military off-the-shelf version of the Reaper from the US. This provides a good example for Australia in some respects but not all.

Dr Davies : I think the two take-home messages are that armed drones are a perfectly legitimate weapon in the ADF armoury and also that they need not attract the level of disquiet that drone operations by the United States in particular have done, if they are operated clearly under a military chain of command and for military purposes.

CHAIR: Part of the wonderful thing about being a senator is that you get to visit places, and I have actually watched the Heron in action. The only capability that that commander thought he needed was the ability to complete the task, so to speak, when he had to hand over to an American controlled Reaper to do the work that he wanted to do. It seems perfectly straightforward to me.

Senator FAWCETT: You have cited the example of the CIA operations, and that is the kind of dark edge that everybody loves to talk about because it is probably one of the extremes. How do you compare the mainstream US military operations, in terms of their transparency and effectiveness, to the UK, as an example? I notice it is not specifically discussed in the submission.

Ms Turner : The UK and the US, from what I have been able to see, particularly with the recent air strikes campaigns in Iraq and Syria, were, at least at the start of the campaign, fairly similar in terms of their transparency on updates of airstrikes and what platforms were used. That transparency has at times become a little more opaque in the US example as that campaign has gone on. From what I have been able to find, in the resources online you can find fairly good updates from the UK about the percentage of strikes and where those strikes have been. I think it is a little less transparent in the US example in military operations within Afghanistan, where it is military controlled. But, then again, I could also potentially just need to look a bit harder.

Dr Davies : I would just make the observation that I think the whole reason that there is an inquiry into the use of armed drones is the mystique that they have picked up because of the unconventional operations they have been involved in. In terms of conventional operations, I do not think they are on a different footing to any other armed platform.

Senator FAWCETT: What I am getting at is that, whilst I agree that I think the UK is a good model, it is not so much: 'Don't look at America.' I think the underlying difference is that they have an intelligence agency—

Dr Davies : Yes.

Senator FAWCETT: which has a special remit, whereas, if Australia sticks with our existing legislative structure, where our intelligence agencies are specifically precluded from any of those kinds of activities regardless of what weapons system or platform they are using, Australia will continue down a path that we have been broadly comfortable with as a community for decades in terms of our interaction with IHL and other international obligations. Would that be a correct assessment, from your submission?

Dr Davies : Absolutely, and that is why I tried to make the point about the different structural arrangements between American and Australian intelligence. There is a special activities area within the CIA that has no parallel at all in the Australian intelligence community. In fact, the Intelligence Services Act explicitly precludes any paramilitary activities.

Senator FAWCETT: Dr Davies, you have been in this debate for many years around defence procurement and what role Australian industry should be playing as opposed to the Defence approach of getting best 'value for dollar' through FMS acquisitions. We have heard a number of submissions today around the UAV industry—because it is broader than just armed UAVs; it is about everything—that Australian industry has a real opportunity here, and it is in the national interest to see that industry prosper and involved in global supply chains, whether it be something the size of Triton or more tactical platforms. One suggestion was that we should constrain the first couple of tactical classes of UAVs to domestic acquisition in future years. Do you have a view on whether government should be looking at this industry—particularly the high-end software control systems, distributed data networks, algorithms for actually making sense of the gigabytes of data that come back—as a niche opportunity to grow some of these high-end skills in Australia?

Dr Davies : I think there is, and it is consistent with a view that I have expressed in previous appearances before committees—that comparative advantage is what matters. With things like drones, there is such a wide range of applications for them that there are, absolutely, industry players within Australia who have some real value to add. And the beauty of it is that we are in the very early days of understanding what drones can do and we have platforms ranging all the way from one metre-span things that are literally hand-launched through to Triton, which is the size of a Boeing 737. So I would not even rule out the possibility of Australian industry being involved in hardware.

One of things I would very much like to see is the Department of Defence taking a more experimental approach to developing drone capability in Australia. The Land 129 project under Army stagnated for a very long time, and they were more or less dragged kicking and screaming into grabbing something and using it with the operations in Afghanistan. There is a lot to be said for experimentation, and natural selection will identify the industry players who can add value.

Senator BACK: There is a lot of relevant expertise now, Dr Davies, isn't there, from the recent use that this technology has been put to in Afghanistan? Our Army personnel are very, very experienced now, I think.

Dr Davies : That is right, and it would be a crying shame if that experience was lost from the system and did not inform the next steps.

CHAIR: Do you know what the experimentation budget of Defence is? We know through estimates that they only have to report failed projects that are over $15 million. Do you have a ballpark figure for what Defence would have for experimental or innovative type projects?

Dr Davies : It is actually hard to say because some of the R&D and innovation is done within the DSTO budget, which is several hundred million dollars, and then you have a whole range of other programs, like the RPDE Program and the Capability and Technology Demonstrator Program. I would guess it would be tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions.

CHAIR: If an expert in the area like you does not know, it sounds like a particularly good question for estimates.

Dr Davies : I would think so.

Senator FAWCETT: In terms of the broad force structure and purpose of spending in this space, Defence at the moment has its tactical UAVs; it is talking about Triton for its broad-area surveillance in the maritime space. We also, though, see clear examples of fishery patrols in the Southern Ocean, border protection off the north-west and a range of other tasks that are done by Coastwatch, AMSA or other bodies. Do ASPI or you personally have a view about whether we should be looking at these kinds of activities from a whole-of-government perspective, such that Triton should actually be owned and operated by Defence but with a range of tasking? Some witnesses here have suggested the ability to strap on pods for specific payloads to meet particular objectives. Do you have a view on that—or whether we should be getting Coastwatch, if they want UAVs, to run UAVs et cetera?

Dr Davies : I do not think it is either/or. I think there is scope for both of those things to happen. If you look at the current arrangements with the manned maritime patrol aircraft, they provide time to border protection as well as their duties to the ADF. There is no reason the Triton cannot do that as well. There is also the Coastwatch aircraft, the manned aircraft. They have a role as well, and there is no reason why they could not be augmented by drones as well—the same sort of model, but now a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft on both sides. I do not see any conflict with that at all.

Senator BACK: Ms Turner, you said 'be prepared to use them a lot', and you made reference to the UK select committee on defence highlighting a lack of UAV operators and imagery analysts being a key challenge in their operations and said that the US Air Force also struggled. Could you expand on that and give us some advice as to how you think a recommendation by this committee could ensure opportunities for young Australians to get into this space, and from what stage in their education.

Ms Turner : Yes, indeed. The UK have reported that they have found it difficult in terms of acquiring the personnel capabilities in this area. That has been a common problem across these UAV programs, and I think the message for Australia is to start early in terms of training personnel. I understand that there have been some combined training efforts between the US and Australia on some unmanned aerial vehicles, and that is a really good step. 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. I think that Australia can gain from the UK and the US experience in terms of recruiting personnel because, in a sense, there is a lot of benefit coming at this stage—not at that very early opening stage of these military platforms entering into defence forces. We can gain from those experiences and say: we need to start earlier; we can target these populations and use these recruitment tactics to attract a different sort of person who might be more suited to this kind of role.

Senator BACK: I would have thought that, with these skills that young kids have got these days—Senator Gallacher has probably got them; I certainly have not—it would be very popular, particularly for young boys in the civilian space, even starting at school level. I would have thought that that would be very much in line. Secondly, I thought that, as people left military service, if there were a demand for civilian UAVs, then people with some military experience would be very well equipped to move into the civilian space.

Dr Davies : If I might add a footnote, I think that, in terms of the demographics of people you recruit, you are absolutely right. If there is going to be an upside to a younger generation who spend many hours of their lives in front of a screen, this is probably one of them. But let me also make an observation about technology: one of the reasons that the Brits and others have struggled with analysing all of the data coming back from high-endurance drones is that they have got systems of imagery analysis and intelligence exploitation that are set up for static imagery—satellite photography, that sort of thing—whereas this is dynamic streaming imagery. First of all, it requires a different skill set and, secondly, the change of volume is extraordinary. I think there is significant scope here for automatic systems and clever algorithms, and this is the sort of opening that Senator Fawcett referred to before—people developing smart systems and smart software processing to make better use of the data streams that are coming out of drones.

Senator BACK: Could I stay with you, Dr Davies. You mentioned that there is no good reason why Australia cannot participate in the hardware development side. With your knowledge of Australia's challenges and our remoteness et cetera, is the technology as it comes into Australia adequate for that purpose, or in fact is there capacity for Australian manufacturers and others to customise these standard products for Australian use?

I am thinking as much in civilian as in military use.

Dr Davies : It is a little of both, I think. When you look at the spectrum of drones, there is a possibility of developing whole platforms. To give one example—and it is not the sort of drone we would normally think about—there is a company called Solar Sailor here in Australia which is essentially building unmanned maritime platforms that collect their own energy from wave and solar energy and can do things like surveillance sensing. That is an example of an Australian company that is developing a platform. Alternatively we could adapt overseas-sourced platforms for Australian purposes. Again I do not think it is an either/or; I think we could do both.

Senator BACK: Where is the catalyst? What role, if any, can government play to assist that process? Is it in research and development, financial support?

Dr Davies : It is in encouraging the various players in surveillance and military operations areas to take that experimental approach that I mentioned before rather than just taking the top-level design set of requirements that can only be met by a foreign-sourced platform. In taking a more experimental view, what could we do with a cheaper, smaller, locally-produced drone, for example? The other thing that government could do, and we have touched on this before, is to take a whole-of-government approach to things like maritime surveillance. The military, because of their demanding roles, tend to drive things towards the more expensive and more complex systems, whereas I think there is scope in a whole bunch of other things that governments care about, like border protection, landcare surveillance or bushfires, where smaller, less complex platforms would be valuable. If we let Defence drive the national approach to drones, we will tend to drive towards one part of the market, whereas a whole-of-government approach would spread it out more.

Senator McEWEN: Dr Davies, is your submission intended to cover unmanned surface vessels as well, or are you just talking about aerial drones?

Dr Davies : I was talking about aerial drones primarily.

Senator McEWEN: Do you have a view about USVs or UUVs?

Dr Davies : Only that it is a technology that we would ignore at our peril. I think it will significantly change the way that submarine operations are done, for example. I gave a talk at an ASPI conference last year on submarines and I talked about how computer processing will make it easier to find submarines. That will tend to drive submarines further offshore into blue water and their effects will be delivered through remotely-controlled underwater vehicles. Australia's future submarine will have to take account of those developments.

Senator McEWEN: A previous witness, Saab, indicated that they did not believe USVs needed to be armed. Do you have an opinion about that?

Dr Davies : It depends what you want to do with them. I can certainly imagine scenarios in which an armed unmanned surface vessel would be useful—lots of small ones carrying weapons as a swarm, for example. I think we would be limiting our imagination if we did not think that the future might include systems like that.

Senator McEWEN: One of the reasons the witness expressed that view was that there could be implications for IHL and international law about the deployment of armed unmanned surface vessels. Do you have a view about that?

Dr Davies : I will not claim to be an expert in international law, but my view would be quite simple: whenever there is a person in the loop making the command decisions, it is a qualitatively different scenario to autonomous vehicles making their own decisions about the deployment of weapons. I think that crosses a threshold where we would certainly have to look at a whole bunch of legal and ethical issues, but short of that I am not so sure.

Senator McEWEN: Following on from comments in your submission about public acceptance of the use of drones, that the public would be reassured if there were a demonstrable military chain of command, a number of submitters have said that one of the advantages of using unmanned platforms is that you could use permanent civilian contractors to maintain them. You could also use them in both forward and deployed areas of operations. So how do you think that would go down with the public? If there were a lot of civilians operating, maintaining or garnering information from these drones, do you think the public would care?

Dr Davies : I suspect not. I suspect what the public care about is the terminal effect—that is, the weapons that are deployed and the targets that they hit. If they are demonstrably in support of military operations and there is a military chain of command responsible for the targeting decisions, I suspect that there is not a problem if there are civilians actually flying the drones or dealing with some of the intelligence feeds that come from them. That would be my anticipation—that it is how they are used, not the workforce that employs them.

Senator McEWEN: There are already a lot of civilian contractors within Defence doing different things. Sometimes that is controversial within Defence itself. Do you think Defence people would readily accept civilian contractors using these new technologies, particularly if they had lethal force?

Dr Davies : I think we need to make a distinction between support and command and control. I think the ADF has already crossed the threshold of accepting civilian contractors, even in front-end support roles. Basically, the ADF could not do what it does if it were not for civilian contract support these days. But supporting a platform is a very different thing from commanding it and controlling it.

CHAIR: I want to take a slightly different tack. We have had some comment about CASA's role in all of this. Presumably in the defence space and, for want of a better word, in the top end space, all those regulations would be working properly. There is no need for any complementary work by CASA, in your view, on the drones that the military operate?

Dr Davies : Again, that is not an area of expertise of mine, but certainly there are implications of drone operations for how airspace is managed. I think there have been enough drone operations around the world now to show that those problems are solvable ones. Do you have anything to add?

Ms Turner : I would just add that one of the debates going on in Europe at the moment is on the potential use of medium altitude drones in European airspace. It is certainly something that should be addressed up-front, because it can cause delays and restrictions on the use of the platforms in-country.

CHAIR: Is there a collision avoidance system installed on drones so they cannot fly into a passenger aircraft? If you can design a car that does not run into the car in front of it, presumably you can design a drone that does not hit something.

Dr Davies : I do not know. Do you know, Senator Fawcett? This is your sort of thing.

Senator FAWCETT: There is work going on on what they call 'see and avoid' technology. One of the witnesses earlier this morning talked about that. It has been installed in some drones. One of the key issues that CASA has at the moment about mixed operations between civil aviation and military is that ability to see and avoid.

CHAIR: Your group is not doing any work in that space?

Dr Davies : No, but I would make the observation that the density of air traffic that Australia has is much lower than Europe's. I suspect it is easier—if Europe can solve the problem, Australia absolutely can.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence and your submission.