Errol McCormack Protecting Australia with UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), The Williams Foundation, February 2014
The capabilities and use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has grown rapidly over the last decade or so. Australia’s geography is uniquely well suited to the use of UAS in a variety of military and civilian missions and roles over water and over land.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF), while relatively slow to adopt UAS, has recent successful operational experience with UAS in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ADF plans to build on this experience including through the potential acquisition of new multi-mission UAS with an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability as a complementary capability to the replacement of the AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft with a new manned aircraft (Project Air 7000).
In addition to the ISR role, the introduction of UAS strike capability by Australia appears to be inevitable. A potentially cost-effective way of acquiring armed UAS would be to investigate expanding the scope of Project Air 7000 to include the acquisition of a strike capability for the chosen ISR platform.
Fully exploiting the potential benefits of UAS, however, requires addressing a range of issues. The current debate and analysis on particular manned versus unmanned platforms for specific roles should shift its focus instead identifying the optimum mix of manned and unmanned systems to achieve the desired effect in the most cost effective way.
Policy implications of armed UAS need to be settled in the short term in the context of Australia’s current Rules of Engagement and its obligations under International Laws of Armed Conflict. Australia should consider following the lead of the United Nations (UN) and the United States (US) by adopting a no full autonomy policy for UAS operations.
However, acquiring new unmanned and manned aircraft is only part of the capability requirement. These new technologies will not be properly exploited unless the ADF is able to fully process, exploit and disseminate the gathered imagery and technical information. What is needed is not a separate or new UAS processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) capability but one integrated PED for all data collection that will be able to cope with future data volumes.
In addition, new UAS technologies will need to be applied to the entire set of ADF core function areas to increase the effectiveness of operations, rather than just plugging UAS into conventional Concept of Operations.
Australia should seek to be an influential UAS buyer as the Defence budget will not afford the scale and diversity of UAS acquisition that can be undertaken by US forces. Next generation UAS preferably should have the flexibility to perform more than just one function through the development of modules so that different mission sets can be accomplished by changing the configuration of the aircraft itself.
Australia should also collaborate with other UAS military users to overcome current UAS limitations particularly their vulnerability in contested and denied air environments, and current data link and bandwidth limitations.
In the specific context of defence, the ADF needs to develop appropriate capabilities to counter potential UAS terrorist acts; an appropriate ADF personnel selection, management and training system to underpin UAS; and a sound understanding of current Australian UAS research and development (R&D) and industry capabilities. In addition, the ADF needs to shape future R&D and industry development to meet expected ADF requirements.
Looking more broadly, UAS will enhance the ADF’s contribution to national support tasks such as civil emergencies and border protection. The persistence and surveillance capabilities of UAS provide new and innovative options for these tasks and will free manned platforms for more complex tasks.
Defence, though, is not the only Australian Government agency acquiring or potentially acquiring UAS. An important issue for Government consideration is whether agencies such as Customs and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) should own their own UAS assets, as is the case for manned assets, or whether they should be in a largely centralised pool owned and operated by the ADF.
With rapid military and civil UAS growth in Australia expected, the civil airspace challenge for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is to ensure the safety of other airspace users as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground. CASA is working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other international bodies to update Australia’s regulatory framework. CASA might like to follow the US precedent by developing a UAS Integration Roadmap and establishing UAS test sites in Australia.
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