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The Sale of US Reaper Drones to Australia Could Provoke Regional Tensions

Australia plans to purchase eight armed drones from the US, according to reports, but the history of the technology could create fear that cross border-raids will begin in Southeast Asia.

by Scott Mitchell
Mar 30 2015, 12:40pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The sale of United States reaper drones has the potential to inflame regional tensions for their allies, according to a policy analyst for possibly their newest buyer — the Australian government.

Reaper drones are the central technology of the US battle against extremism. They are used in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, which the US is not officially at war with, but which have become havens for alleged militants and terrorists.

In February, the US approved reaper drones for export, opening the market to a small group of close allies. Australia has reportedly already sent military personnel to start training on the platform at American air force bases in Nevada and New Mexico.

"I'd certainly like to have Predator-Reaper capability," Air Marshall Geoff Brown, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force told reporters in February. "It is certainly something we have put forward."

The only country outside the US with armed reaper drones is currently the United Kingdom. It has been recently reported, however, that Australia will try to buy eight reaper drones. The price tag for each has been estimated at between Australian $12-20 million ($9-15m).

But the arrival of the world's premier armed drone system could lead Australia's neighbors to fear "CIA-type drone operations over their territory, blowing up terror training camps," according to Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the country's government-funded defense think tank.

Related: The US has issued new rules for the foreign sale of military drones. Read more here.

Davies, director of research at ASPI, told VICE News: "There's no reason an armed drone is any more or less threatening than an armed F-111 fighter bomber. But they [drones] are associated with the way the US uses them in places like Yemen and Pakistan without the concurrence of those governments. It's created a perception of the technology that will have to be managed."

Southeast Asia has long been home to Islamist militias and terror groups. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country and Australia's close neighbor, has had limited success trying to break up extremist groups there.

Last week, Indonesia arrested seven people allegedly linked with Islamic State, some of whom were accused of supplying the group with recruits. In the past, terrorist training camps have been discovered within the country's vast ungovernable jungles. Then, despite last month's deployment of 1,000 police officers on a manhunt in central Suluwesi province, Indonesia has been unable to capture the country's most wanted terrorist, a man known as Abu Wardah Santoso, who is wanted for a series of kidnappings and assassinations.

According to Davies, Indonesia could look "very unfavorably" on an Australian purchase of reaper drones because they'd be fearful their neighbor could use them in targeted killing raids, as the US has, and violate Indonesian territory in the process.

Related: Syria is showing off video of a 'downed' US drone. Read more here.

The proliferation armed drone technology will not stop with Australia, however, and 11 countries — including Pakistan, Iran, and India — are developing such aircraft, according to RAND Corporation.

The spread of drone technology could lower the threshold for conflict, according to Sarah Kreps of the Council on Foreign Relations. "We are likely to see states carrying out cross-border attacks less discriminately," she said.

Another criticism of drones is that while they present the illusion of a precise and targeted capability, but are actually a more indiscriminate weapon.

A November 2014 study by Reprieve human rights group found that 41 terror suspects pursued by the US targeted killing program needed to be hit more than once, and that the strikes against these men had killed as many as 1,147 people. The report called into question the precision of drone strikes, posing the question: "If the people on the US kill list take on average three strikes to kill, who is the US killing in the first two strikes that miss their targets?"

Australia could be a responsible operator of drone technology, according to Davies, who called for a pre-emptive diplomatic push to assure other regional powers that the technology would be used responsibly. He argued that Australia's drones would be strictly used by the military and not by Australia's intelligence services, which also don't have the same far-reaching powers as counterparts such as the CIA in the US.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

Photo via Wikimedia Commons