Last week was a big one for drones in Australia. A US Global Hawk made its first ever landing on a non-military airstrip at the Avalon Airshow and the Department of Defence said it wants to reestablish an agreement to influence the future development of the naval version of the Global Hawk, the Triton, of which Australia intends to purchase seven. Most notably, the Royal Australian Air Force has stated its intention to purchase eight Reapers, the armed drone that is controversially used by the US for targeted strikes. The RAAF already had personnel undergoing training stateside only days after the formal change of policy that made the purchase possible.


A US Global Hawk drone at the Avalon Air Show. (Flickr/The Canon.)

These are positive developments for Australian security but the reporting around these decisions and events doesn't really explain why.

Mentioning drones usually conjures images of recent operations in the Middle East and South Asia. But the biggest use of drones for Australia would actually be patrolling our northern approaches, something that can be done more persistently and cost effectively using uncrewed systems. The purchase of the Triton provides the beginnings of such a capability, but more importantly it will create the institutional building blocks to allow for weaponised platforms and for implementation of future capabilities like uncrewed underwater vehicles.

Acquiring drones will enhance Australian capability in meaningful ways but this may not actually be the most important consequence of becoming a leader in the use of military drones. Drones are proliferating rapidly, especially in our region. Numbers vary but some estimates state that 85 countries possess drones of some variety for military purposes. There are few opportunities to reduce this rate of proliferation. The US does not hold a monopoly on the technology and cannot control its growth. In fact, Israel is the largest exporter of military drones, China and Iran have shown a willingness to export their drones, and many other nations are developing indigenous capabilities or draw on widely available commercial technologies. Australia must consider and respond to the military use of drones by others.

Given that we cannot prevent the proliferation of drones it is important that Australia helps influence how they are used regionally and internationally.

The greatest risk to Australian interests is not that other nations will acquire drones and use them against us (if it were, buying drones of our own would not be a remedy). The more likely risk is that some nations will use them in ways that undermine the rules-based international order that Australia subscribes to, or will increase regional instability through risky use (such as China flying a drone toward the Senkaku islands in September 2013). These incidents are likely to increase in frequency as nations acquire drones and seek to push the boundaries of international norms or re-establish them in their favour.

To have a credible voice in developing appropriate norms and policies for drone use on the world stage, Australia must establish itself as a leading operator of drone capability, including armed variants. The announcements from last week put Australia on that path. To be sure, capability acquisition alone will not achieve that objective. Related efforts will be required by the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to establish Australia's drone use policies and foreign policy positions.

Establishing appropriate policies in line with the law and Australian values will also go a long way to addressing concerns that the Australian public may have about the acquisition of drones. These concerns were mentioned by a number of senior leaders last week but were primarily articulated in terms of civilian casualties. Air Marshal Geoff Brown said 'The collateral damage issues around UAVs are absolutely no different to manned aeroplanes,' and that 'I certainly don't see any difference from dropping a bomb from a Reaper or an F-18.'

Concerns about civilian casualties should always be in the minds of national security leaders but this is not the key issue that makes drones controversial. Rather the issue is the current US use of drones for targeted counter-terrorism strikes outside war zones by non-military intelligence organisations. An Australian policy proscribing the use of drones in this manner would help mitigate concerns about the technology and would make a useful contribution to normalising the use of drones internationally.

Australia's geostrategic circumstances, population size, technical sophistication and wealth all point logically to the use of uncrewed systems, especially in the air and maritime domains. Rather than shy away from drones based on some contentious current policies, Australia should continue down its emerging path to best equip our military, contribute to regional security from capability and policy perspectives and to ensure that Australian values are represented in the international use of a technology that will play an ever increasing role in warfare.