With the Obama administration embroiled in controversy over civilian victims of drones in the borderless war on terror, the Australian government is following Washington’s lead in expanding Australia’s drone capacity.
Australia plans to spend up to $3 billion on seven Global Hawks, intelligence and surveillance drones that are the biggest and most expensive in the world.
Labor originally dropped Howard government plans to purchase the drones, but has backtracked. According to the ABC, “The unmanned aerial vehicles will be used for maritime surveillance and intercepting asylum seeker boats.”
Alongside this, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has purchased a new generation of manned maritime patrol aircraft, capable of being armed with missiles and torpedos.
This, according to Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is, “about the Indian Ocean and securing our sea lanes. In the Indian Ocean we see growing competition between the navies of China, India and the US. US attention is now pivoting towards this part of the world.”
The Australian military is no stranger to drones. The ABC reported in May that Australia is renting Israeli Heron drones via a Canadian company for use in Afghanistan. Since March this year, the army has logged 1000 flight hours in Afghanistan. At training bases in Queensland and South Australia, “trainees spend ten hours a day flying drones over a purpose-built mock Afghan village.”
The drones record hours of footage watched by military commanders. While the drones are not weaponised, they are part of what is privately known as the “kill chain” process, which identifies targets for attacks.
There are signs Australia may move towards weaponised drones, with Australian Defence Force Commander General David Hurley telling a Senate inquiry, “I wouldn’t discount the fact that we might have armed UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] thinking through our force structure review into the future.”
The ABC has also revealed that the US used an Adelaide base to fly spy drone missions from Australia. Despite efforts by the US military to keep this information confidential, a group of aviation enthusiasts have revealed that they monitored ten US spy drone missions between 2001-2006.
Australian officials have proposed offering the US use of the Cocos Islands to host spy drones. The islands, 2000 kilometres north of Perth, have been acknowledged as a key strategic asset for the US in its efforts to contain China. Defence Minister Stephen Smith has been evasive about disclosing any decisions or details about the plans, saying it was not an immediate priority but would be “down the track”.
The talk of co-operation in drone warfare comes on top of a recent agreement between the US and Australia to host 2500 US marines in Darwin, and expanding Perth air base for use by US forces.
The Gillard government is well and truly committed to militarism and maintaining the US-Australia alliance. Behind this is their desire to extend Australia’s role in the Pacific region as US “Deputy Sheriff”. The Australian ruling class cultivates the US alliance as a guarantee of its domination of the South Pacific and as a way to win influence around the globe.
Obama’s shadow wars drone on
Drones are unmanned aircraft with supposed “precision” targeting and killing capabilities, controlled through a joystick hundreds of kilometres away from their targets. Military strategists have justified the use of drones by arguing they decrease numbers of solider and civilian deaths in war.
But assurances of “precision” have been exposed as a lie. Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documents reports of civilian carnage, including reports that those helping victims of drone attacks, or attendees at funerals of victims of drone attacks, have been targeted. They found that since Obama took office three years ago, 551 civilians have been killed, including more than 60 children.
This is the collateral damage of Obama’s so-called “shadow wars” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Michael Boyle, a former counter-terrorism advisor to Obama, estimates 2400 have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan alone since 2004.
Many commentators are calling Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy “kill not capture”, saying it is designed to continue George W. Bush’s “anti-terror” attacks, while avoiding the controversy and human rights issues of Guantanamo and show trials at home.
Obama justifies the drone killing by pointing to the US Congress’ Authorisation of War Bill passed after 9/11. John Brennan, his counter-terrorism chief, argues that there is, “nothing in the [bill] that restricts the use of military force against al-Qa’ida to [locations in] Afghanistan”—an interpretation that effectively treats this bill as an authorisation to use force against anyone, at any time, in a war without end.
Jasmine Ali and Amy Thomas