The kill chain: Australia's drone warabc.net.au | Jun 8th 2012 9:18 PM
A senior Australian Defence Force officer has revealed details of how the Royal Australian Air Force deploys Israeli-owned drones for battlefield surveillance and to target anti-government Islamic fighters in Afghanistan.
Wing Commander Jonathan McMullan says Australia is "just buying hours" on the Heron drones from a Canadian company that in turn "leases them from IAI" (Israel Aerospace Industries), which is wholly owned by the Israeli government.
While enthusiastically endorsing the Heron's capabilities, Wing Commander McMullan was highly critical of the quality of training provided by Israeli and Canadian instructors to Australian drone crews.
The unarmed Israeli Herons first entered RAAF service in Afghanistan in December 2009.
They are the centrepiece of the ADF's rapidly expanding drone warfare capability that has so far cost an estimated $550 million.
Australian Defence Force chief General David Hurley told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra late last month: "I wouldn't discount the fact that we might have armed UAVs thinking through our force structure review into the future."
In this report, Foreign Correspondent's Mark Corcoran goes behind the scenes of Australia's drone war.
'Saving Australian lives'
The Royal Pines Golf Resort on the Gold Coast is a long way from Afghanistan.
But it was there recently, at the Heli and UV Pacific aviation convention, that Australia's top military drone commanders launched an extraordinary public relations offensive.
In one sense they were preaching to the converted; this gathering of aviation industry insiders was fascinated by the technology but displayed no interest in discussing the political or ethical considerations of this rapidly expanding form of warfare.
Beyond the gleaming display helicopters parked on manicured lawns, and inside a packed auditorium, Wing Commander Jonathan McMullan took to the stage.
He'd returned just days earlier from deployment to Kandahar in Afghanistan and was exuberant about the drone force he commanded, the Royal Australian Air Force's 5 Flight. This technology, he proclaimed, was saving Australian lives and was now enthusiastically embraced by the troops on the ground.
"The capability? It's like crack cocaine, a drug, for our guys involved - just can't get enough of it," Wing Commander McMullan said.
So far none of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) employed by Australian forces carry weaponry, unlike the Reaper and Predator hunter-killer drones deployed by the United States.
However, military sources have told Foreign Correspondent that armed US drones have conducted strike missions at the direction of Australian special forces troops.
Australian Defence Force chief General David Hurley told a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra late last month that: "I wouldn't discount the fact that we might have armed UAVs thinking through our force structure review into the future."
Flight of the Heron
The RAAF Heron drones are based at the sprawling Kandahar military complex in southern Afghanistan. The base's single runway is the busiest in the world, with a take-off or landing every 90 seconds. So when a RAAF Heron slowly rolls out for take-off every morning at 3am, Wing Commander McMullan says it is "a massive pain in everyone's arse".
But once airborne the ungainly Heron, weighing 1.1 tonnes with a 16.6-metre wing span, comes into its own.
The Heron carries no weapons, holding instead a sophisticated payload of sensors and cameras. It can stay airborne for up to 24 hours, soaring to a height of 27,000 feet.
RAAF Herons range far and wide across Afghanistan, supporting not just Australian troops, but all Coalition forces.
"We go from one customer to another until we run out of fuel," Wing Commander McMullan said.
Since first being deployed to Afghanistan in December 2009, RAAF Herons have flown 10,000 hours. Wing Commander McMullan claims the Heron's automatic take-off and landing system makes it much safer than American Predators and Reapers, which he says have notoriously difficult manual controls and suffer a high crash rate.
"The majority of Predators and Reapers are lost on landing. They lost three during my last time there," he revealed.
But the Heron isn't always graceful. Wing Commander McMullan conceded there had been "some crashes". In 2010, Sydney's Daily Telegraph reported that Defence had covered up two Heron accidents.
Military aviators never use the "drone" word. The RAAF prefers remotely piloted aircraft system, or RPA.
"People want to hear the word 'pilot' in there," Wing Commander McMullan insisted.
No military UAV presentation is complete without a sample of what's nicknamed "Kill TV" by the Australians, or "Predator porn" by Americans.
Conference delegates watched a brief video clip of what appeared to be an Afghan villager riding a bike down a dirt road - and falling off. Laughter in auditorium. Video ends.
This was the PG version. There were no excerpts of the lightning-fast missile strikes, the dramatic bursts of light, the chaos and carnage that gives "Kill TV" and "Predator porn" its apt names.
Operators spend hundreds of hours watching banks of TV monitors, as drone cameras record ordinary Afghans struggling to get on with their daily lives in appalling circumstances.
"We may spend five or 10 days over a village 24/7 so our war fighters can decide the best time to visit the village. Observing 'pattern of life' is about 50 per cent of our work." Wing Commander McMullan said.
Drones at seaThe Royal Australian Navy is also planning for drone warfare. Lieutenant Commander Bob Ferry, who runs the Navy's UAV development unit, told the Gold Coast conference the Navy will soon start 300 hours of trials with small ex-Army Scan Eagle drones.
In June 2013 the Navy will also test fly a sophisticated Austrian Schiebel helicopter drone.
UAV analyst Peter La Franchi says this is just the start.
"Four Navy frigates have already been converted to support Scan Eagle launch and recovery operations. Eventually all Australian warships will have a UAV capability," he noted.
High on the Heron target list are insurgent spotters, who observe Australian troop movements and coordinate ambushes and the laying of roadside bombs.
"Afghanistan's mobile phone system is crap. I've never had a call longer than one minute before it dropping out. This forces insurgents to use hand-held digital radios," Wing Commander McMullan said.
Telltale digital signals from their radio chatter put the spotters firmly in the crosshairs of prowling Herons.
"Insurgents push out (communicate) from mountain top to mountain top. We exploit that. Our mission is to locate these people so they can be removed," Wing Commander McMullan said.
"The Heron is very good at removing these spotters."
Once located, a decision is taken to "kill or capture". Military officers say special forces troops can be sent in to detain the spotter, or the insurgent can be marked with the Heron's laser and seconds later obliterated by a laser-guided bomb lobbed from a distant aircraft, or killed by a precision artillery shell fired from up to 30 kilometres away.
Australia has so far spent $230 million operating 19 Herons.
'The kill chain'
Australia's Herons may be unarmed, but they are a key link in a targeting process privately called "the kill chain".
The Australian Defence Force refuses to divulge how many individuals have been targeted by Herons, nor will the ADF disclose how high up the chain of command a decision is made to proceed with a "high-end precision targeting" strike.
Military sources have told Foreign Correspondent that senior officers, including the Dubai-based two-star general charged with commanding Australian forces in the Middle East, have been directly involved in the targeting process.
They may be unmanned aircraft, but each RAAF Heron still requires a team of 10 people to fly it in combat. In the Kandahar control room are a pilot, a pay load operator and an electronic warfare section comprising intelligence officers, technicians and locally hired "cultural advisers" and linguists.
Wing Commander McMullan says the last two categories are hard to fill. The linguists from his last deployment had moved to Canada and the United States, and he was urgently seeking replacements.
"I can't get enough [electronic warfare] people, so if you are a top secret-cleared, Pashtun-speaking individual, I have a job for you."
Wing Commander McMullan says every target on every mission is subjected to a rigorous review process. The priority is saving Australian lives.
He revealed that the RAAF has orders that if Australian troops are under attack, Herons are to stay overhead in support at all costs, even if that means running out of fuel and crashing.
The Israeli connection
The RAAF doesn't actually own the Heron drones it flies to war in Afghanistan. It hires them.
Unidentified flying droneIt appears the Defence Force is not alone in flying high-performance drones across Australian skies.
Lieutenant Commander Bob Ferry says that in November 2011 a civilian Learjet operated by Pelair was engaging in target-towing duties for a naval gunnery exercise in a restricted zone off the southern NSW coast.
He said the Learjet encountered an unidentified high-performance drone flying 65 nautical miles east of Jervis Bay at a height of 3,000 feet.
The mystery drone did not belong to either the Australian or US military nor licensed civilian drone operators. The Navy says investigations are continuing.
Wing Commander Jonathan McMullan says "we are just buying hours" from a Canada-based company called MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). MDA in turn leases them from another corporation, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which is wholly owned by the government of Israel.
Israeli-owned drones, leased by Canadians, flown by Australians, fighting a war against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.
The first RAAF drone teams were trained in Israel and Canada. Now instruction takes place at Amberley in Queensland, with hands-on training at the Woomera military reserve in South Australia, where trainees spend 10 hours a day flying drones over a purpose-built mock Afghan village, under the guidance of civilian MDA instructors. Australian Army and Navy pilots have also joined the Heron teams.
But Wing Commander McMullan is critical of the training program. He says elite RAAF fighter pilots working with Canadians and Israeli civilians "has not been the best mix".
"My biggest bugbear is civilians with low experience (all on UAVs) teaching very experienced military guys," he said.
"Teaching at Woomera at the moment, there wouldn't be a day we don't get a whinge from a fighter pilot."
Obama's global drone war
There has been no public or political debate in Australia over the country's recently enhanced drone capability. This is in stark contrast to the drone war controversy now engulfing Washington.
As America's ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, the Obama administration has dramatically escalated the drone campaign. This highly controversial yet largely covert conflict is being waged across the skies of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, from a growing network of bases.
Reapers and Predators armed with missiles and operated by the US military and the CIA roam far beyond the battlefield to engage in targeted killings. The New York Times reports that President Obama has personally approved drone strikes against individuals on a secret "kill list".
Mr Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, John O Brennan, publicly defended the use of drone strikes, telling the Washington Post that their precision limited civilian casualties and lowered risks for US military personnel.
The decision to fire a missile from a drone, he said, was taken with "extraordinary care and thoughtfulness".
A growing legion of critics argue that drone strikes are not only illegal but frequently miss the targets, killing innocent bystanders and destroying any semblance of a "hearts and minds" mission.
"Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in Al Qaeda-controlled areas," Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for human rights group Karama told the Washington Post. "The drones are killing Al Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes."
So what is the difference between an American missile-armed Reaper and an unarmed Australian Heron that is capable of calling in an airstrike or artillery?
Andrew Davies from the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says "there is a semantic difference between direct and indirect fire support".
"The Americans are sending their drones out on strike missions," Dr Davies said. "I don't think our aircraft are being sent over the border into Pakistan. I'd be very surprised if that was the case."
US military drones also routinely support CIA-ordered airstrikes, but Dr Davies doesn't see Australia's overseas spy agency ASIS calling in RAAF or Army drones to launch targeted assassinations.
"That side of ASIS operational capability was stripped away in the 80s and 90s," he said.
"ASIS agents in Afghanistan are now permitted to carry weapons, but they are not allowed to be involved in this kind of complex paramilitary activity."
He says the Australian "kill chain" is tightly controlled, with "lawyers literally looking over the shoulder of the operators".
"I'm not aware of any legal cases against Australia as a result of our drone operations," he noted.
Moving through the Gold Coast convention crowd of service personnel and salesmen was Peter La Franchi, aviation journalist and consultant to the rapidly expanding civilian UAV market.
He estimates the Australian Government has already spent $548 million on military drones, most of it in the past three years. He says Defence's approach had been ad-hoc.
"Defence is still to sort out what role it intends to play in the development of Australia's unmanned systems industry despite years of experimentation and trials."
He says the RAAF could have bought a fleet of UAVs for the same amount it had already paid to lease Israeli Herons.
Mr La Franchi, who in the 1990s was an advisor to then-defence minister Robert Ray, is puzzled by the absence of public debate over drone expenditure and strategy.
Like Dr Davies, he doubts Australia is participating beyond Afghanistan in Washington's escalating drone war.
"It is unlikely that RAAF Herons would be used in cross-border operations as the US acts as a solo operator in missions over Pakistan and it is unlikely Australia would give assent to such operations."
But he does see legal problems ahead for Australian drone missions within Afghanistan.
"The US has experienced lawsuits as a result of Predator strikes in Pakistan ... sooner or later we are going to face a near identical situation here in Australia," he said.
An official Defence spokesman told Foreign Correspondent "the Heron RPAs are confined to Afghanistan" but declined to elaborate on their exact role.
While the Air Force demands that expensive, highly trained pilots fly RAAF drones, the Army wants young soldiers of the "PlayStation Generation". No previous aviation experience necessary.
"If you want to have a look at it simplistically, this is a flying set of binoculars," said Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Loynes, commanding officer of the Army's 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment.
Lt Col Loynes was in the exhibition hall of the Gold Coast convention. In the middle of this aviation bazaar, he proudly posed for photographs next to his latest acquisition, the Shadow 200 UAV.
In the best trade-show tradition, his young soldiers hand out souvenir pens containing tiny Shadow drone replicas. Tilt the pen and the drone dives towards an imaginary target.
"It's a great news story," Lt Col Loynes said. "We can fly higher, we can now see further and with an accuracy that we simply haven't been able to do before in Uruzgun province."
He says Australia's Shadow missions range from "humanitarian to high-end precision targeting".
Since launching Shadow operations in Afghanistan in March this year the Army has logged 1,000 flight hours. While the RAAF ranges across Afghanistan, the Army's Shadow, which is about one-third the size of the Heron, flies out of the Tarin Kowt base, keeping watch over the Australian contingent.
Previously, the Army operated the much smaller, toy-like Skylark and Scan Eagle drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor. The $169.5 million invested in 18 Shadow UAVs represents a massive increase in the Army's drone capability.
Lt Col Loynes says "the guys on the ground have got a real thirst for it. When you provide it, you know then real-time information with what's over the hill or what's in the next valley, or they can see an area that they're going to be going tomorrow.
"You can accurately map out, you know, what doorway and what is the best ... window for them to enter into a compound. That information is incredible so, you know, they want more and more."
"There's actually quite a small proportion which is actually that direct target acquisition function."
US Marines also operate the unarmed Shadow in Afghanistan. They're not so effusive. According to FlightGlobal.com: "On a recent deployment by a single unit, the Marines counted 94 'high-value targets' that escaped even though they were spotted."
Frustrated, US Marines are now arming their Shadows, an upgrade the Australian Army is watching closely.
"We have no plans to arm them, nothing in the pipeline like that, but I'm led to believe there are some other programs through ... American Aircraft Industries to look at that feasibility," Lt Col Loynes said.
Mark Corcoran has been a senior reporter/producer with Foreign Correspondent for 15 years. Since 2001 he has extensively covered political, military and social aspects of the US-declared 'war on terror' from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, France, Greece, Norway and the United States.
- Reporter: Mark Corcoran
- Foreign Correspondent executive producer: Steve Taylor
- News Online executive producer: Matthew Liddy
First posted June 08, 2012 13:56:09
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