Australia has decided to follow the United States down the path of armed drones, capable of killing people across the world at the touch of a button.

Royal Australian Air Force aircrew have begun training in the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the US, the Department of Defence announced this week.

Although Australia’s military already uses light unarmed drones for surveillance and reconnaissance in Afghanistan, this will be the first use of armed drones — specifically, the MQ-9 Reaper, described by the US Air Force as providing “a unique capability to perform strike, co-ordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets”.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

Former Office of National Assessments senior strategic analyst Sam Roggeveen described the decision as unavoidable. “I think it’s very much the trend among armed forces of the kind we’re trying to compare ourselves with,” he told Crikey.

Roggeveen admits there are concerns the new technology could potentially lead to an expanding scope for Australian military operations outside recognised war zones.

“I think the danger is that the Obama administration has set precedents of military strikes in places where there’s no formal state of war, places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia,” he said. “I don’t think that’s likely to happen, though. I can’t see Australia taking that kind of lead role. I think it’s much more likely that Russia would use that kind of activity as a pretext for their own strikes.”

Although Roggeveen assures Crikey that Russia is “way behind” on unmanned aerial vehicle technology, Russian state media last year quoted Deputy Defence Minister Yuriy Borisov as suggesting that official tests on unmanned air vehicles were planned for as early as 2017.

Writing on the subject for the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Roggeveen said the US had “made some dreadful mistakes in its use of drones”, saying unless the technology was managed well, it could strain Australia’s relationship with regional powers:

“The temptation to take a short cut by using drones to eradicate terrorists (or drug kingpins, weapons smugglers, leaders of groups committing atrocities in ungoverned spaces and others operating in the ‘transnational’ realm) could erode domestic and international norms around assassinations and due process.”

Many of these concerns have been put to the government in the form of submissions to the ongoing Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into the potential use by the Australian Defence Force of unmanned air, maritime and land platforms. Submissions closed earlier this month.

As part of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s submission to the inquiry, senior analyst Dr Andrew Davies suggested the government could allay international concerns over its adoption of armed drones by clearly establishing restrictions on the use and control of armed UAVs.

“Firstly, [the government] could make clear public statements about the concept of operations for the drones, limiting them to use in areas where other ADF elements are deployed, for example. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Australian government could ensure that armed drones are put unambiguously and visibly under military control, rather than being ‘national assets’ in the sense that CIA-operated aircraft that carry out many of the strikes overseas are.”

A RAND corporation report into UAVs and US security being used as background for the inquiry outlined the devastating psychological effect of armed drones on terror suspects in the fight against terrorism. It found the murkiness surrounding drones drew significant criticism.

“The greatest concerns about U.S. use of armed UAVs appear to arise from operations outside active war zones, less-transparent operations, lack of clarity about congressional authorizations, and targeting of those not clearly identified as combatants or al Qaeda leaders.”

But Roggeveen remains sceptical that the Australian government would go it alone in terms of drone strikes.

“I think the Abbott government knows it would be wildly counter-productive to launch strikes against terrorist targets in our region unless it’s with the permission and co-operation of the host country,” he told Crikey.

“Our biggest successes in counter-terrorism in this region have come from persistent and fairly low-key co-operation between intelligence and police services. The fight against JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] in Indonesia is a standout example.”

Roggeveen says opposition to drones is less a reflection of the technological capabilities of the drones themselves, but a consequence of the war on terror “slowly eroding the norms around the use of force”.

“I don’t think drones are the culprit here; it’s really just that the fight against terrorism is so different that the old rules don’t apply so much.”