Lessons for the ADF from Britain’s armed drone program
6 Feb 2015|

This image shows Reaper a Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS), part of 39 Squadron Royal Air Force. The Reaper has completed 20,000 operational flight hours in theatre, and is operated from Kandahar Air Field (KAF) in Afghanistan.The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee today closes the window for public submissions on the potential use by the ADF of unmanned air, maritime and land platforms. Following the success of the Scan Eagle, Shadow and Heron drones in a variety of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks in Afghanistan, one of the key questions the committee should consider is the implications of future Australian acquisition of armed drones.

A relatively small group of militaries currently use armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in military operations: Israel, the UK and the US. While Israel and the US have expansive indigenous programs that produce their fleets of strike drones, the UK has acquired a small fleet of American-made General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper armed drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF). As Andrew Davies outlines in his post, there’re some good reasons for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to consider armed drones, and the Reaper’s one viable option. The UK’s experience acquiring and integrating the platform into its air force offers some valuable insights and lessons for the ADF, outlined below.

Armed drones don’t need to erode targeting laws and processes

One 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. For some, that concern has been heightened by the widespread use of drone strikes by the US outside traditional battlefields. But—unlike the US—the UK has restricted the use of armed UAVs to the RAF (rather than its intelligence agencies) and has used them only within the confines of military operations. That means RAF rules of engagement (ROE) that apply for manned aircraft apply equally for Reaper operations.

The ADF’s policy on targeting is also tied closely to Australia’s obligations under the laws of armed conflict. If the ADF acquires armed UAVs, restricting the platforms to military operations (as the UK has done) would help alleviate some of the primary legal concerns about their use.

Embrace transparency, manage perceptions

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 (PDF, also see here). 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 technology.

Any acquisition of armed drones by Australia, particularly if US-made Reapers are chosen, could ignite similar concerns that they may be used covertly beyond battlefields. As Andrew observed, this is a risk in the case of neighbouring countries, particularly those that are dealing with armed Islamic groups. It’d therefore be wise for Government to be proactive and clear in its public messaging as to where, and how, armed drones would be used.

Be prepared to use them…a lot

Since the UK acquired its first five Reapers back in 2007 under an urgent operational requirement, the fleet has seen constant action—in Afghanistan up until 2014, and now in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the UK reportedly conducted up to 40% of the total drone strikes in 2011. 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 regard.)

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.

The UK’s use of drone strikes may not have garnered as much attention as the widespread actions of the US. Yet in many ways the UK’s more limited use of armed drones has shown how successful this approach can be. The UK’s experience integrating a small but active Reaper fleet into its defence force demonstrates some useful lessons for the ADF, which are made all the more relevant by our other similarities—including our approach to ROE, the role of intelligence services, and our core alliances with the US.

Rosalyn Turner completed ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.

Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the UK Reapers were operating currently in both Iraq and Syria.