Fairfax defence correspondent David Wroe had what his editors labelled an exclusive in the weekend Sydney Morning Herald: Royal Australian Air Force chief Air Marshal Geoff Brown told Wroe the RAAF is interested in buying armed drones.

No disrespect to Wroe, whose background piece on drones in the same day's paper was excellent, but the real exclusive would have been if Brown had said the RAAF was not interested in armed drones. As Brown says in the article, the Reaper drone (control station pictured) — which the US and UK have used extensively in  Afghanistan and elsewhere — offers a host of desirable capabilities for the RAAF.

But there is undoubted newsworthiness here, since as Wroe says, 'such a purchase could raise controversy, given the name recognition. Washington's use of drones against Islamic militants has been hotly contested.'

Quite so. The US has made some dreadful mistakes in its use of drones, resulting in civilian casualties. And there are legitimate questions about the use of such systems in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the US is not at war. Because drones are capable and relatively cheap and risk-free, they increase the temptation to use force in such circumstances. They offer a simple technological fix to problems that would otherwise need to be solved by slower and messier methods such as law enforcement, international diplomacy and intelligence cooperation. 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.

Nevertheless, Air Marshal Brown pushes back hard on the question of drones and civilian casulaties, as he should. Despite their reputation, the use of armed drones rather than crewed combat aircraft may actually reduce civilian casualties because drones offer greater 'persistence'; they can stay on station longer, observing targets for longer and thus giving decision-makers on the ground better information with which to make targeting decisions. Those decision-makers can also consult more widely, and they don't suffer the stress of flying a plane and having to avoid getting shot down while they are trying to decide how to deal with a target.

Also, keep in mind that the ADF has always operated various types of weapons that could be used illegally or immorally. The challenge has always been to make sure that our people are educated in the laws of war, and that we have the means to punish those who breach them. That challenge is constant, whether Australia buys drones or not.

Wroe's backgrounder also points to the challenges raised by increasingly autonomous weapons systems – that is, weapons which can take action (even lethal action) without a 'person in the loop'. I have argued previously that this is also not as novel or as scary as it might at first appear, but there are clearly contrasting opinions. Some of those opinions are about to be aired at a UN conference in Geneva, and there are some interesting conference papers collected at the official website.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.