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As a former chief of army predicts that joint strike fighters will be the military’s last manned aircraft, what checks will prevent civilian deaths by drones? By Karen Middleton.

Australia and drone warfare

Drones are discussed at the Talisman Sabre joint military exercises between Australia and the US last year.
Credit: REUTERS / JASON REED

Abdul Qodus’s brother died on a mountainside in Wardak province, Afghanistan, in 2014. The goatherd had gone to graze his animals about 3 o’clock one afternoon when he was killed in a United States drone strike. At home in their village, Qodus heard the attack and went to investigate. He found his brother’s body in pieces, along with three of the goats.

Abdul Qodus – not his real name – extracted no explanation from the local authorities as to why his brother was targeted.

“It has affected us badly – we are all crazy,” Qodus told Melbourne University academic and PhD candidate Alex Edney-Browne, who is researching the psychological impact of drones on communities under attack and on those who fire them.

Qodus says the attack that killed his brother was the second on the mountain and people are reluctant to go up there now or visit each other’s homes, especially at night. The sound of drones, which can hover overhead for hours or days, invokes panic.

Qodus insists his brother was a civilian. But the opaque nature of this kind of warfare means the truth behind what led to the attack will likely never be known.

As Australia prepares to join those countries equipped to mount drone attacks, there is increasing focus on this robotic technology in warfare and the ethical, humanitarian and security challenges it poses.

Former chief of army and now director of the University of Canberra’s National Security Institute, Peter Leahy, says Australia’s move into drone warfare is inevitable. Human pilots “need oxygen and comfortable seats” while remotely piloted aircraft are more agile and can fly higher – and lower – for longer.

“To maintain independent sovereign capability, Australia will need to acquire drones and consider in the future replacing fighter aircraft with unmanned combat aircraft,” Leahy told The Saturday Paper.

Australia is set to take delivery of the first of 72 new F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft this year. “I think it’s likely to be the last manned aircraft for Australia,” Leahy says.

Leahy defends the precision of remotely piloted air strikes and Australia’s combat rules, which he says are highly focused on avoiding civilian casualties.

Accurate statistics on civilian deaths from air strikes are difficult to compile but some credible reports argue they have increased – not decreased – with the use of drones.

The US-based Airwars organisation, which tracks drone attacks, says between 3923 and 6102 civilians were killed in drone strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017.

Leahy says that while he can’t comment on the level of casualties, such findings should be acknowledged.

“It serves as a powerful argument to ensure that the procedures are as tight as possible, because our aim must be to minimise civilian casualties,” he says.

Last year, Alex Edney-Browne travelled to Afghanistan to interview people impacted by drone strikes, including Abdul Qodus.

“Every drone attack where civilians are killed gives the Taliban material with which to recruit,” she says.

Accompanying her was retired Afghan–Australian nuclear physicist Dr Nouria Salehi, who established and is director of the Afghan Australian Development Organisation.

Salehi has previously campaigned against landmines but is now focused on this new frontier, warning that the impact of drone strikes will be long-lasting, both on the individuals and communities targeted and more broadly on the nations that undertake them. “Spending more money on drones, it means we are making more enemies for ourselves,” Salehi told The Saturday Paper.

To date, Australia’s use of remotely piloted aircraft has only involved intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, not air strikes. But that is about to change with the pending purchase of armed Reaper drones from the US.

The Australian government says all armed remotely piloted aircraft systems Defence is considering are operated by a human. It insists that the Australian Defence Force complies with the laws of armed conflict and international human rights law at all times. It says this international law governs the conduct of military operations and as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol 1, Australia is required to conduct legal reviews of new weapons or methods of warfare.

The 2016 Defence White Paper allocated up to $4 billion to buy unarmed drones for surveillance and related activities, and another $2 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles with weapons attached.

The latter represents a significant shift in Australia’s capabilities and the kind of war fighting in which it engages.

Defence sources told The Saturday Paper the acquisition was “progressing”.

Like Edney-Browne, Salehi is concerned. She says she objects to the aid budget being cut while money is being allocated to new weapons, to which the government responds that Australia has spent $1.3 billion on development in Afghanistan, or $80 million a year.

Salehi is also concerned about drone strikes generally – the psychological impact of constant surveillance as much as the destruction and grief when civilians are killed.

“Drones seem easy to use,” Salehi says. “Air force drone operators sit in safety and push buttons. No bodies come home in flag-draped coffins, although minds may never recover: anxiety, depression and PTSD is found to be rife amongst drone operators. Meanwhile, people living under the threat of drones are injured, killed and psychologically traumatised.”

Edney-Browne interviewed former drone operators in the US whose job had been to watch Afghan villagers closely and then see them killed.

“A lot of the people I spoke to talk about the emotional attachment that occurs when they are asked to surveil someone,” she said.

There is an emerging body of research into the impact on the drone pilots. A RAND Corporation report published last year on stress and dissatisfaction among US-based drone pilots revealed the strain of living on a remote American military base in Nevada or New Mexico but operating aircraft engaged in combat in countries in the Middle East. The study reported them saying it “can be hard to ‘off someone’ and then go back home and hug the kids”. The shifts are long and frequent because drones are cheaper and remain in the air for longer than regular aircraft and conduct intense surveillance.

Pilots report struggling with the pressure to distinguish a community meeting from a gathering of insurgents or vehicles carrying families from a convoy planning violence, all from some distance above the ground.

The head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Professor John Blaxland, says Australian rules of engagement require meticulous checking before lethal force is used.

He says drones can enable more accurate firing than traditional air strikes.

“You go to see [the bomber] G for George at the War Memorial and you see how far we’ve come,” Blaxland says. “We used to carpet-bomb cities.”

In the United States, whose forces have used drone-mounted weapons for many years, the Trump administration has recently liberalised its rules for using lethal force.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has applied under the US Freedom of Information Act for the public release of the new rules, having successfully forced the Obama administration to publish its rules in 2016. When the 30-day response deadline passed in December, the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

An attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, Anna Diakun, said the Trump administration’s rules were reportedly “making it easier to kill more people in more places around the world, posing serious risks to civilians”.

“These rules are currently secret, but the public has a right to know who the government claims authority to kill, when, and why,” Diakun said from New York.

The US government is required to respond by February.

Diakun says Australia should not emulate US methods in the use of drones in combat. “The United States’ drone policies have historically distorted domestic and international law and have led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians – a model not to be followed by its foreign allies,” she says.

“Any country using drones abroad must do so transparently, accountably, and in full compliance with international law.”

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Australia, Wahidullah Waissi, said avoiding civilian casualties was “the foremost point” in combat.

“So far, since the operation of drone air strikes have been managed through coalition forces in coordination with the Afghan government, they have been very successful,” Waissi says. “According to my reports, these drones have been very much useful … If the use of drones is [more] harmful for civilians, of course, we would not want to use them. But that’s not the case.”

But the technology is not working all one way. Drones carrying weapons are being used against coalition forces as well as by them. Insurgents used a swarm of small commercially available drones in Mosul last year to drop grenades on Iraqi forces, a sudden air warfare capability they had not had before.

There is concern about the ability to respond to such threats in future and that the lack of regulation governing the use of small easily obtainable drones in Australia could see them become a serious security threat at home, too.

Restrictions on the use of drones weighing less than two kilograms were eased in Australia in September 2016.

A Senate inquiry has heard from some organisations endorsing the change and others warning about possible dangerous implications for aviation, public safety and national security.

Some are arguing for new manufacturing rules requiring inbuilt software to make small drones able to be tracked and jammed more easily, and for their owners to be registered.

John Blaxland says there is “quite a lot of discussion” within the defence community about how to counter such threats. “The lessons from Mosul have been profound,” he says. “We are really undercooked here. We are underprepared, underdone … The Defence Force needs to get its act sorted out to be able to respond.”

Peter Leahy agrees. “In general terms, in the military space, our air defence capabilities are limited,” he says, “and in the civilian space, the skies are wide open for the use of drones by terrorists.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Flesh and drones". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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