David Wroe; Defence correspondent
When air intelligence analyst Tyrone Buckland sits in a box-like portable office at Kandahar Airfield and studies the image being beamed from thousands of metres above a village in southern Afghanistan, he sees a lot. He can tell a man from a woman. He can sometimes spot weapons. ”You need time. That’s the key thing,” Corporal Buckland said. ”Then you can home in on something that doesn’t look right and you dwell on that for a while, create a picture in your mind.” The use of drones has been one area where the 12-year war in Afghanistan has propelled the Australian Defence Force forward in considerable strides. Before the team of about 30 Australian pilots, analysts and support staff of the Heron detachment at Kandahar set up three years ago, the ADF had little experience of unmanned aircraft.
The team has now racked up 15,000 flying hours with Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles the ADF is leasing from Canadian firm MDA. And however controversial drones have become in Australia, the Heron team is utterly persuaded that, in warfare at least, drones are the future. Border protection is the obvious area where surveillance drones could be used. But with the federal government reviewing Australia’s defence plans, now is the perfect time to explore the broader use of drones, according to the head of the Heron team, 39-year-old Wing Commander Adrian Maso.
”It’s going to happen … we’re about to have a rethink of force structure and … in the next few years we have to make decisions about what kind of capability we want. This has been a really excellent stepping stone,” he said. It’s a touchy topic because drones – a word the Heron team eschews, preferring ”unmanned aerial vehicle” or better still ”remotely piloted aircraft” – are associated with the remote killing carried out by the US Predator and Reaper craft, or intrusions upon privacy in civilian life.
Unlike some US and Israeli drones, the Herons operated by the ADF are unarmed and are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance only. Weighing just over a tonne and with a wingspan of more than 16 metres, the Heron can fly non-stop for 24 hours. Their uses range from gathering intelligence about suspected Taliban targets, to helping protect Afghan foot patrols by informing them of any insurgent movements. Commander Maso said Australia needs to have a debate about how drones will be used, including the prospect of arming them.