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Australia’s air attacks in the Middle East ended three years ago – or did they? | Paul Daley | Australia news

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Australian air attacks on enemy ground targets in the Middle East ended three years ago. Or so the Australian military told us.

But undisclosed to either the Australian public or the federal parliament, this country’s air force personnel have been piloting deadly British air force drone strikes on enemy combatants in Iraq and Syria.

Details of the leading role Australian military pilots are playing in unmanned aircraft attacks in the Middle East are opaque at best. The Australian defence department obfuscates when asked the simplest of questions about them. The federal government, meanwhile, is rightly being pressed for answers.

Indeed, it’s an understatement to suggest an absence of transparency underscores the Australian defence department’s refusal to detail how many Australian air force personnel are piloting the British drone strikes on Islamic State targets in the Middle East – or precisely where they are based.

Neither Australia’s Department of Defence nor Britain’s Ministry of Defence have formally announced Australian involvement in the drone strikes, which are apparently the consequence of a shortage of British pilots due to “stresses of piloting deadly unmanned aircraft”.

The secretive Australian involvement in the Middle East drone strikes was revealed by Drone Wars (a monitor of unmanned aircraft use) after it was detailed in attachments to Britain’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority – an overseer of major UK public spending projects.

It was subsequently reported in the Guardian and in the defence industry magazines UAS and Aviation.

Despite even having being re-reported in the Australian air force’s own magazine, Wings, the defence department has still refused to provide any meaningful details at all.

“RAAF [Australian air force] pilots and private contractors are being drafted to help fly UK armed Reaper drones over Syria and Iraq amid shortages in RAF crews and concern over the stresses of piloting deadly unmanned aircraft.

“Their presence allows the RAF to deploy its trained pilots more efficiently on combat missions and helps plug the crew shortages that are deemed to be the greatest risk to the UK’s [$2bn] future drone [the next generation Reaper] program,” Wings reported in December.

Guardian Australia asked defence to confirm if Australian air force pilots are flying British drone missions over Iraq and Syria; whether Australia has publicly announced this; where the Australian pilots are based; if they are in the service of the RAF or the Australian air force; which enemies they are striking and how many pilots are involved.

A spokesman responded: “Defence participates in a number of international exchanges, including: embedding personnel into operations, education and the support and operation of a range of capabilities and systems. Participating in these exchanges provides an enduring and effective opportunity to enhance interoperability and increase our understanding of complex systems and capabilities.”

Clear as a muddy creek on a windy day!

The president of Australians for War Powers Reform and former Australian defence department secretary, Paul Barratt, described the use of Australian air force personnel to pilot British Middle East drone strikes as a “remarkable development which should have been revealed to the Australian public before any such deployments took place – as should any deployment of Australia military forces into international armed conflict”.

“This reported deployment raises a number of important questions to which we believe the Australian public is entitled to clear answers,” he said.

“For example: can RAAF crews operate drones from Australia or only from somewhere in the Middle East region? From where are they in fact operating them? Are the reported Australian contractors in the service of the RAF or the RAAF? Are RAF crew shortages caused by insufficient numbers of service people being willing to carry out these operations? Who are these ‘combat missions’ aimed at? What ADF presence remains in Iraq and Syria? What is the legal basis for the ADF to be carrying out drone strikes in Syria?”

Barratt has now written to Australia’s defence minister, Linda Reynolds, seeking clarification of Australia’s defence posture in the Middle East.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence has been similarly opaque about the Australian drone pilots, last August refusing to confirm to the Guardian how many personnel were involved.

On 16 January 2018 the air force announced that an Australian hornet’s sortie to Iraq two days earlier “marked the completion of Australian strike missions in the Middle East”.

“The ADF will continue to work with the coalition and Iraqi partners over the coming months to establish their ongoing requirements and assess where they can make the most valuable contribution, as we work to maintain the gains in that region,” the then Australian defence force chief Mark Binskin said.

Besides filling the shortfall of British drone pilots, the Australians flying the British Reapers on bombing missions will be gaining experience ahead of Australia’s evolving drone warfare program, Air 7003.

“Australia is purchasing the SkyGuardian drone (which the UK is choosing to call ‘Protector’) for operations from 2022/3 and no doubt is happy for some of its air force pilots embedded with the RAF to acquire related experience operating Reaper drones,” Drone Wars reported.

It said private contractors (banned from firing missiles from the drones) were, however, being used to launch and recover the UK Reapers, raising “important legal and accountability issues”.

“As well as operations against Isis in Iraq and Syria, British drones are also now being used on other missions, details of which are being kept secret from both parliament and the public. Introducing private contractors into flying combat missions, even in a limited way, is dangerous and short-sighted and should be ended immediately.”

British drones are piloted from the RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire and the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait known as The Rock.

The April-June 2020 quarter marked a dramatic increase in the number of UK airstrikes (32 compared with none from January to March), according to a British defence ministry freedom of information response to Drone Wars.

It all begs the question, of course: when is an Australian-piloted drone strike not an Australian strike?

Let’s see Reynolds’ answers to Barratt.

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