The government plans to buy a fleet of unproven unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol for asylum seekers and illegal fishing boats. Basing it in Adelaide suggests a political agenda. By Max Opray.

SA’s Edinburgh RAAF base to host drones fleet

From the soaring height of 16,000 metres, an MQ-4C Triton drone will be able to peer down and capture crystal-clear images of watercraft as small as a rowboat or, for that matter, a fishing trawler jammed with asylum seekers. 

In the air for more than 30 hours at a time, the Triton unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) soaks up not just pictures from below, but radio and mobile phone signals as well, an all-seeing eye offering unrivalled surveillance capabilities.

At a likely cost of $200 million each, including ground systems, these hulking, pilotless machines with a 40-metre wingspan have so impressed the Abbott government that it wants to spend up to $3 billion on acquiring a fleet of them.

Still under development by manufacturer Northrop Grumman and delayed by technical issues, the United States is the only other country to publicly commit to the Triton, with the US Navy planning to acquire 68.

The Abbott government says it will use the Tritons in tandem with Australia’s forthcoming new maritime surveillance fleet of manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft to keep watch over asylum-seeker vessels, illegal fishing operations and threats to offshore liquefied natural gas operations, using the drone planes to undertake tedious sweeps of Australia’s vast ocean territories and only sending in the Poseidons when further investigation is required.  

In the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Triton drone would have been handy: where current-generation reconnaissance  planes spent most of their fuel getting to and from the search area, the Triton could have spent significantly more time scanning for debris before returning. 

1 . Location, location

Unusual passenger aircraft disappearances aside, these drones will typically operate north of Australia, so it is more than a little curious that they are to be based along Australia’s southern coastline, at the Edinburgh RAAF base north of Adelaide.

Unless the government is preparing for a wave of refugees fleeing the melting ice shelves of Antarctica, it seems these drones will have to travel thousands of kilometres north just to reach the areas they will be tasked with monitoring.  

Military ethicist Jai Galliott, author of the upcoming Unmanned Systems: Mapping the Moral Landscape, believes the government has put politics ahead of national security considerations.

“From a defence perspective, basing the drones in South Australia is an odd strategic move,” he said.

For a clue as to why, consider that just around the corner from the Edinburgh facility is Holden’s Elizabeth manufacturing plant, scheduled to close down in 2017, exactly when Defence Materiel Organisation insiders say construction on the drone base is likely to ramp up.

In the middle of a bitter SA state election campaign last month, the Liberal Party was copping plenty of heat for letting Holden go, so it was convenient timing when Prime Minister Abbott, side by side with state Liberal leader Stephen Marshall, announced a drone job boom was coming to the state.

“While this is fundamentally a defence announcement, rather than an economic announcement, nevertheless there are important economic spin-offs for the great state of South Australia,” Abbott said.

While Labor Premier Jay Weatherill went on to secure an unlikely re-election victory the following week, he was so miffed by being left out of the drones announcement that during his election night speech he singled it out as a low point in the campaign.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Andrew Davies defended the government’s decision. He pointed out that the current generation of maritime surveillance aircraft – the manned P-3 Orion – operates out of Adelaide, so moving to a more strategic location would be a costly manoeuvre.

“Moving defence bases is an expensive business – any money saved on fuel could well be swamped by the sheer cost of moving,” he said.

Galliott remains unconvinced. “The ground control systems for the Triton will need to be built from new, so the existing infrastructure claim is negated in some sense,” he said. 

Whatever is being said in public, those implementing Australia’s Triton program are already making plans to mitigate Adelaide’s geographic handicap. 

A military procurement insider told The Saturday Paper that some facilities for the Triton will likely be built in the Northern Territory. Pressed on whether Darwin will play a role in housing the drones, a defence spokesperson said planning is not yet finalised.

“The Triton aircraft will be home based at RAAF Base Edinburgh, although they are likely to be forward deployed for operations,” the spokesperson said. “The forward deployment locations are yet to be determined.”

2 . ALP's 'free pass'

Federal Labor is backing the plan for an Australian fleet of Triton drones, going so far as to say the Abbott government is merely following its lead, after the acquisitions were first outlined in the 2013 Defence White Paper. 

“The Coalition continues to make defence purchases that are in line with what Labor set out while in government,” shadow minister for defence Senator Stephen Conroy said.

Galliott, who describes himself as a “hesitant advocate” of unmanned drones, is concerned about the lack of transparency. “Defence has got what it wanted, but we need to think about who was writing the white paper and who was consulted for it,” he said.

It is not just about how they decided on Adelaide as the base, but how they settled on the Triton itself. There are cheaper alternatives available, such as General Atomics’ Mariner drone, which proponents say offers roughly 80 per cent of the capability of a Triton for one-10th of the cost.

The Department of Defence said the Triton was the only system capable of meeting Australia’s maritime surveillance needs, including performing at “considerable range from operating bases”.

Noting that the Triton has received mixed reviews from global experts – particularly in regard to targeting systems – Galliott wants information released on why the department has so much confidence in the machine. “It may well turn out to be the best system for the job, but we need a review into why this system was purchased over others,” he said.

Senator Scott Ludlam of the Greens is currently spearheading a senate inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, and although it hasn’t come up yet, he says drone surveillance will be a focal point. He is disappointed that the Tritons have been given a “free pass” from the federal Labor opposition. “For some departments it appears the budget emergency doesn’t exist. There doesn’t seem to be limits to the acquisitions of exotic military hardware, yet every other department is being cut to the bone,” he said.

Ludlam says the Greens are “tech-agnostic” and would be open to technology that would help protect life at sea. “But what it’s really about is muscling up on border security and turning a humanitarian emergency into a national security emergency.”

3 . How far will we go?

While the government has been keen to link the drones with its signature Stop the Boats policy, the Department of Defence conceded that the Tritons will have a much broader scope of operations, including in support of military, maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations “in the national interest”.

Galliott says there are plenty of uses for these drones that the military would obviously prefer not to trumpet around the world, such as spying on regional adversaries. He also notes that while the Triton is being optimised for surveillance, it would be capable of being weaponised in the future if defence so desires.

Before such a step is taken, Galliott believes Australia needs to have a national conversation about how far we want to go with drones, taking into account moral and legal issues in addition to military objectives.

“We currently have a highly polarised debate, with NGOs on one side against these systems, because when armed they can kill people including non-combatants, and who perhaps take issue with this program because they disagree with the Stop the Boats campaign,” he said.

“On the other side, meanwhile, you have think tanks actively advocating for drone use – what we really need are people from academia, legal experts, moral philosophers working in the middle to work out what the truth is.”

The think tanks include the aforementioned Australian Strategic Policy Institute, partially funded by the defence department to provide the government with expert advice, and the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. Given the high-tech nature of the drone world, there are few bona-fide experts for the media to turn to, and these think tanks feed the media with generous helpings of research papers and expert analysis. But while they describe themselves as independent advisers on defence policy, both organisations also receive significant funding from the Triton developer Northrop Grumman, along with a multitude of other US military-industrial complex heavyweights. The national debate about drones is being framed by institutes funded by their manufacturers. 

Northrop Grumman has also taken up the PR war more directly, sponsoring the 2014 UAV Challenge Outback Rescue competition, which the company says is an “effort to increase innovative thinking in engineering and technology among today’s youth”.

Students participating in the challenge are required to design, build and fly their own drone capable of conducting search-and-rescue operations or delivering life-saving supplies to “a fictitious lost or injured individual known as Outback Joe”.

The students may one day vie for high-tech jobs at Australia’s drone base, whether it remains in Adelaide, or shifts to a more efficient northern location or another state where tight elections loom.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Game of drones".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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