Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper detailed the government’s intention to acquire armed unmanned aircraft within the next decade. A paper titled A New Direction for Australian Air Power: Armed Unmanned Aircraft, commissioned by the chief of air force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, and written by Dr Peter Layton, examines the key issues surrounding this often contentious issue. The essay’s centrepiece is its “Ten Propositions Concerning Armed UAVs”.
UAVs have been around for decades, but it was only after their innovative use during the Israeli Air Force’s brilliant campaign in the Bekaa Valley in 1982 that their potential began to be taken seriously by many defence forces. Since then, their rise has been both spectacular and irresistible. Today, they are an indispensable element of any advanced defence force’s information gathering and dissemination capability, for tactical, operational, and strategic purposes.
Equally as significant but far more controversial has been the rapid growth of armed UAVs. In the current war against Islamic State, for example, more than one-third of the US Air Force’s land strike missions are being conducted by armed unmanned aircraft. This trend, which will only increase, represents nothing less than a radical change in how military organisations apply force in general and air power in particular.
The use of armed UAVs has generated widespread concerns over the apparent removal of people from the field of combat, the so-called “rise of the robots”, and ethical and legal matters. Dr Layton’s informed and measured analysis addresses these concerns, and succeeds admirably in his objective of dispelling myths and resolving confusion.
As noted, the essay is structured around its “ten propositions”. This approach, previously employed by the distinguished American air power scholar Dr Phillip Meilinger in his booklet 10 Propositions Regarding Air Power (Air Force History and Museums Program: Washington, 1995), facilitates a clear and accessible presentation.
In the context of the current debate over the use of armed UAVs, three of the propositions seem especially important to this reviewer.
The first is that armed UAVs can be employed ethically. Layton examines the character of war as it is “traditionally understood”, that understanding having been strongly influenced by the work of the 19th century Prussian soldier-scholar, Carl von Clausewitz. Abstract notions such as what war is or is not, honour in war, and the nature of risk, are all discussed. Perhaps Layton’s most telling observation is that “seeking to share risk in some even-handed manner unethically imperils one’s own forces … there is no morally compelling reason to make one’s own forces as vulnerable as an opponent’s”. To paraphrase the British man of letters Hilaire Belloc:
Whatever happens, we have got
[Armed UAVs], and they have not
The second key proposition is that armed UAVs have been developed to meet the law of armed conflict. Some of the criticism of UAVs has bordered on the irrational because, as Layton points out, the law of armed conflict governs their use just as much as it does any battlefield weapon system. The fact is, UAV technology has evolved in a manner that is entirely compatible with the four core LoAC principles of discrimination, military necessity, (avoiding) unnecessary suffering, and proportionality. Indeed, UAVs’ long loiter times, high resolution sensors and precision weapons, and the access their operators have to real-time intelligence and legal advice arguably enable a superior compliance with LoAC than is the case for most other weapons systems.
Third and last, Dr Layton argues that while the platforms may be unmanned, they are (remotely) controlled by a large distributed crew with diverse skills. That crew can include pilots, sensor operators, intelligence analysts, legal advisors, ethicists, weapons specialists, and so on. As he states, “an armed UAV mission represents an operations-intelligence fusion that manned aircraft cannot easily match”. His comparison could be extended to just about any other weapons system, “manned” or otherwise.
The remaining seven propositions are as follows: that UAVs bring greater persistence to the application of air power; are one part of a much larger system; offer new ways of providing close air attack to ground forces; offer new ways of conducting interdiction operations; provide unsurpassed deployment options; are best suited for operations in areas where defences are limited or suppressed; and are a complement to manned aircraft.
In a sense, the question over the future of armed UAVs has been answered. Their continuing and rapid growth within the inventories of advanced defence forces is evidence that the jury is in. At the same time, it is essential that political and military leaders who wish to exploit this technology in the interests of national security should bring their wider communities forward with them. They could do no better than to inform themselves and their constituencies with this intelligent, well-written booklet.
See Dr Peter Layton, A New Direction for Australian Air Power: Armed Unmanned Aircraft (Air Power Development Centre: Canberra, 2016, 40 pp).
Dr Alan Stephens is a fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation