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Tony Abbott is Mad about Drones

“Real-time surveillance and their vast area of coverage should allow much earlier detection and interception of illegal boat arrivals.” – Tony Abbott

Without imagination, predictability is bound to become a vice. Australia’s explosive, uncontainable opposition leader Tony Abbott has made his latest splash in policy waters by suggesting that his frightened country should propel itself into the twenty-first century with drones. What sweet noble Uncle Sam can do, propelling his light from Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” Australia can imitate “Down Under.” This is the second time Tony Abbott has mooted the suggestion, aping the disposition in numerous countries to buy into the drone market. In May 2010, he made a promise that a Coalition government would acquire three of the drones. This is to the good – if you are part of the manufacturing business behind the Global Hawke model.

Up to 66 countries will become eligible to purchase those toys of terror from the US in due course. Charmingly, Richard Genaille, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency has stated that “We don’t really have a comprehensive U.S. government policy [on exports].”

While Northrop Grumman Corp chief executive Wes Bush is thrilled about Obama’s infatuation with the drone project, he has expressed frustration about a lack of clarity on codifying export practices. (The Obama administration is considering, as of this writing, a single list of items to be administered by one licensing agency.)

Bush has little reason to be concerned – US arms sales make up most of the global market and the Australian defence forces have gotten into the queue. But even manufacturers of killing and surveillance machines have a reason to be worried about the competition. Exporting “dual-use” technologies can be something of a hurdle. Bush warns that a failure to export to the likes of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Australia would repeat the folly of the 1990s when the US share of the commercial satellite market was diminished as a result of strict regulations.

Tony Abbott, as intending customer, sees broader purposes for these drones. By all means use them on refugees. And terrorists – or the other way around. Nuance is alien to the pugilistic Abbott, who tends to see Australia as a land in desperate need of iron cladding against fictional enemies. Nor does it consider that drones do come with their fair set of problems – witness the recent drama Israel Aerospace Industries had with its Heron TP, grounded after severe technical problems were unearthed. Add to this a report from the Washington Business Journal, which revealed that 63 percent of US Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned vehicles remained unused. A robotic future is a far from perfect one.

Drumming up support for such sinister weapons requires a sense of timing. What better forum then than the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL)? As ever, it is Australia’s north that terrifies policymakers. Historically, such vast geographical space has been the incubator of conspiratorial fantasies – German Lutherans bound to commit mischief in league with oppressed Aboriginals, clandestine Japanese incursions, and, of late, “boat people.” What to do then, about this lack of eyesight, as it were?

“Global Hawke unmanned aerial vehicles, which in a day can undertake detailed surveillance of 40,000 square nautical miles, could help to protect the oil and gas projects on the North West Shelf as well as allow much earlier detection of illegal boat arrivals” (Sep 25). Having scolded the current Australian government for not purchasing “Made in Australia” weapons of death, he proceeds to extol the virtues of “American made.” You can’t have it all.

The Australian Government’s Defence Capability Plan (2012) expresses a similar interest in typically mangled prose. Tier 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will constitute what the report calls Phase 4 of JP 129, providing “an ongoing organic Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability for land force operations, as well as provision of a system that can be operated from or within confined areas (such as an urban environment).” Units will be given “enhanced situation awareness and increased force protection.” Maritime patrol also features on the list as a potential use for such vehicles.

Given the penny-pinching regimes that are in place at the moment, US manufacturers are going to have to make the Global Hawke a very attractive proposition. Each vehicle costs, at current pricing, $218 million. The more humble, though less grandiose killer – the Reaper – is a mere $28 million. The cost will, in time, only be a minor deterrence. With political figures such as Abbott, those morally vacuous operators at Northrop Grumman Corp will have nothing to fear.