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UAV Wars: A View from Australia

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Drop the Pilot In New World of Warcraft

(Source: The Australian Online; published October 15, 2011)

In 2000, a year before the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, US operators "flying" Predator drones over Afghanistan spotted a man they believe was Osama bin Laden on three separate occasions.

The operators recalled seeing al-Qa'ida operatives pointing towards drones and said at least one of the aircraft was chased by a jet fighter sent up by Afghanistan's Taliban government. In those days, the Predator was unarmed so the frustrated Americans set about fitting it with Hellfire missiles.

That frustration, the huge cost in lives and money of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and massive increases in computing power have driven extraordinary development of unmanned drones designed to gather intelligence and extend the reach of counter terrorist operations.

Intended originally as a low-cost way of gathering information, the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, has become a powerful weapon that is changing the nature of warfare.

The technological advances made in the past 10 years were dramatically illustrated in the navy SEALs operation that killed bin Laden at his hiding place in Pakistan this year.

The American media revealed after the raid that the CIA used a sophisticated stealth drone to fly dozens of secret missions over Pakistan in the preceding months, watching bin Laden's hideout and monitoring conditions generally.

To be sure they were on to the right target, the CIA also reportedly set up a safe house from which agents gathered intelligence on the ground.

The futuristic-looking, boomerang-shaped and bat-winged Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel is also believed to have provided the footage of the raid watched by President Barack Obama and his aides as it took place.

Just weeks ago, a missile-equipped Predator drone flying over Yemen tracked and killed a man regarded by Australian intelligence officials as one of the world's most dangerous terrorists.

They considered that Anwar al-Awlaki, who headed the group known as al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, posed a significant threat to Australia.

Awlaki, an American of Pakistani origin living in Yemen, produced a magazine, Inspire, which recently figured the Sydney Opera House on the cover as a target. The magazine's editor, Samir Khan, is believed to have been killed in the same missile strike.

Australian officials told The Australian earlier this year that Awlaki posed a particular danger because he worked the internet in English and encouraged lone wolf-style attacks, which are hard to detect.

ASIO chief David Irvine warned recently that small numbers of Australians had absorbed the ideology of violent religious extremism, often via the internet, and had planned or were contemplating acts of terrorism in Australia or overseas.

It is understood intelligence gathered by drones also played a role in the recent capture by coalition and Afghan forces of the commander of Afghanistan's dangerous Haqqani network, Haji Mali Khan.

Mali Khan was one of the highest-ranking members of the network, a revered elder of the Haqqani clan, and he is believed to have run the Taliban-affiliated group's operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Concern about casualties -- the dead and grievously wounded -- in wars and the high cost of mounting dangerous raids into foreign territory to capture terrorists is largely driving the development of technology that can gather intelligence, then act on it, from afar.

When a Predator drone trundles on to a runway at Kandahar air base, takes off and banks towards the jagged mountain region that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, the pilot "flying" this potent unmanned aircraft may be on the base -- or using a screen and joystick back in the US.

The drone's mission may be to loiter unseen high above a suspected Taliban camp or infiltration route, to gather information for a special forces raid or to send a missile out of nowhere to kill an insurgent leader.

That brings issues of its own.

Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the fact the data gathered by the drone is beamed back to a base that could be an ocean away in Florida or elsewhere means the operator has much less autonomy than a fighter pilot.

"It allows the generals to buy in to the tactical-level decisions: 'Should we launch a missile or not?'

"You can have lawyers there, you can have a general looking over your shoulder. It's not like the guy sitting there with the joystick gets to decide when to press the button."

The operators are generally trained military personnel, educated in military law and the rules of warfare, but the job brings stresses that were not anticipated.

"These guys are launching missile strikes and blowing up buildings and cars and killing people and then go home and have dinner with their families," says Davies.

That means they do not have the conditioning and distance of personnel in a war zone and so stress levels among them are high.

"They go home and sit down. They might have, half an hour ago, launched a missile and killed three or four people in a car and then they are suddenly sitting down asking their kids how their English test went.

"The difference in environments can be really unsettling."

Australian forces in Afghanistan use Israeli-made Heron drones, which are not armed but they spend hundreds of hours aloft each month beaming back real-time footage of the landscape below them.

Drones patrol roads by day and night and often spot insurgents, or local men they've paid, planting roadside bombs, which are the biggest killers of coalition troops and civilians in Afghanistan.

The ADF uses experienced pilots to "fly" its drones remotely.

Army pilot Lieutenant Marcus Case, who was killed when flying as a passenger aboard an Australian Chinook helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan in May, had been sent there to operate the drones. Case was a helicopter pilot but other operators include F/A-18 fighter bomber pilots.

Troops in the field carry small ScanEagle UAVs the size of a teenager's model aeroplane, which they can launch to "see" if the enemy's waiting over the next hill or around a corner.

Australia's UAV capability will grow rapidly. To watch over a massive coastline, the ADF is considering buying up to seven high altitude, long-endurance maritime surveillance drones, likely to be the US-built Global Hawk, which has a wingspan as wide as a Boeing 737.

These huge UAVs are capable of staying airborne for days at a time and covering huge areas. They will do much of the work now done by manned P3-Orion maritime patrol planes searching for terrorists, illegal fishers and smugglers of people and drugs.

The drones are rapidly becoming more sophisticated. Britain is working on another stealthy unmanned aircraft, called the Taranis, and a hybrid aircraft/balloon that could stay aloft for three weeks. Other drones will be solar powered and able to stay up indefinitely.

The last manned strike aircraft being developed in the US is the Joint Strike Fighter and that's likely to be Australia's last major manned attack warplane.

Australia plans to buy up to 100 JSFs and it's possible the final of four squadrons could comprise unmanned combat jets.

Unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs, would be used on heavily defended targets to avoid losing pilots. They would be controlled from the ground, by satellite or from another aircraft, such as the RAAF's two-seater Super Hornet.

UCAVs have a long range, can refuel in mid-air and could conceivably stay aloft for days.

Still being developed, UCAVs have some advantages over a conventional aircraft. They are the size of a normal fighter yet are much more manoeuvrable and lack the constraints of G-forces on pilots.