Lethal drones: The future of the Air Force could be un-crewed

Australia’s first domestically designed, manufactured and armed military drone has been unveiled at the Avalon Airshow in Victoria.

The 2.6 metre by 4.5 metre aircraft known as Strix flies without a pilot on board. The aircraft is capable of ground strikes, surveillance and reconnaissance in high risk environments, according to BAE Systems Australia which designed the aircraft in collaboration with Perth-based Innovaero.

It can carry 160kg payload more than 800km.

The announcement comes as the Australian Defence Force considers acquiring large numbers of lethal drones, according to a speech by Air Force Chief Air Marshal Rob Chipman at the Avalon Air Show, reported by the ABC.

Un-crewed air vehicles can either be remotely controlled by a human or fly autonomously using Artificial Intelligence software. 

While the ADF already flies a number of un-crewed aircraft across its air, sea and sky operations, the Air Marshall’s comments suggest the possibility of a further shift towards autonomous military vehicles. 

While drones will reduce the costs of defence equipment and perhaps limit the number of personnel being put in harm’s way, some are concerned about increased risk of conflict with autonomous warfare.

Monash University’s Professor Robert Sparrow tells Cosmos, “there is a real risk that this new enthusiasm for drones will lead to the development and deployment of ethically problematic and dangerously destabilizing autonomous weapon systems.”

Sparrow specialises in applied ethics and technology. He has long argued autonomous weapons could lower the domestic political costs of going to war, leading to an increased risk of conflict. He helped found the International Committee for Robot Arms Control in 2009.

Essentially flying robots, drones and other un-crewed vehicles can perform a range of military roles from intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance through to their use in combat.

The Army operates RQ-7B Shadow 200. The un-crewed aircraft has a 5 metre wingspan and carries high resolution cameras, capable of providing real-time information to ground troops. 

The Air Force will have seven un-crewed aircraft, called the Triton Unmanned Aircraft System, based at RAAF Base Edinburgh. These vehicles will be flown remotely by Air Force pilots from a ground station, used for maritime patrols and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles.

The Navy has two remotely operated aircraft – the S-100 Camcopter and ScanEagle – which provide a similar capability to the Air Force vehicles, along with ocean mapping, ‘electronic attack’ and search capabilities.

“We see [un-crewed aircraft systems] in Defence operations as particularly important moving forward,” Air Force Wing Commander Keirin Joyce told a drones and robotics conference in Brisbane last year.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says the war in Ukraine has cast doubt over the future of human-piloted aircraft due to improvements in air-defence systems and sensors.

Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist, former Australian Army major general Mick Ryan says smaller, un-crewed aerial systems including drones are likely to form part of the defence system replacing piloted aircraft. Drones are harder to detect, small, expendable and can be procured in large numbers.

In a submission to the Defence Strategic Review currently under consideration by the Australian Government, drone industry body the Australian Association for Uncrewed Systems argued for the ADF to develop greater capability in the artificial and machine learning algorithms for operating military drones as well as local design and manufacture of small-medium drones within Australia.

Meanwhile, several leading human rights organisations have called for moratoria on the use of lethal autonomous robots, including drones. 

Human Rights Watch says, “weapons systems that select and engage targets without meaningful human control are unacceptable and need to be prevented […] Retaining meaningful human control over the use of force is an ethical imperative, a legal necessity, and a moral obligation.”

The organisation reports that while Australia has participated in multilateral talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems, it did not support calls for a treaty or ban on such weapons. 

In addition to ground strike and surveillance capabilities, the STRIX could also act as a “loyal wingman” for military helicopters, according to BAE Systems

“Artificial intelligence and human-machine teaming will play a pivotal role for air and space power into the future,” Head of Air Force capability Air Vice Marshal Cath Roberts said in a 2021 speech.

But she also flagged the need to address potential legal and ethical issues with autonomous and AI-driven technologies.

“We need to ensure that ethical and legal issues are resolved at the same pace that the technology is developed. This paper is useful in suggesting consideration of ethical issues that may arise to ensure responsibility for AI systems within traceable systems of control.”

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