Australia Enters The Drone Age: Military To Buy Reapers

Within two years, Australia will be operating weaponised drones.

They’re known as ‘Reapers’, or the MQ-9 Reaper to be exact. And Australia is buying between 12 and 16 of them, at a cost of $2 billion dollars.

The MQ-9 Reaper is the next generation of the MQ-1 Predator drone, that the United States has been operating since the Balkan’s War in 1990.

And while the data about their use hasn't exactly been made clear, drones are controversial in particular because of civilian deaths.

In 2016 the Obama Administration said its drones had killed between 64 and 116 civilians in non-war zones since 2009.

But during that same period the Bureau of Journalism put the death toll closer to at least 324 dead.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, in 2015 (Image: Getty)

And while Australia has one unmanned surveillance aircraft this is the first time our military will have ones with the ability to attack.

When announcing the decision two weeks ago Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne said they’d be used for reconnaissance, but with one distinct caveat.

“Remotely piloted aircraft allow military commanders to make more informed decisions faster whilst providing the option to conduct strike and reconnaissance operations without risking the safety of aircrew,” he said.

But this is exactly why experts say we need to have a serious debate about these drones.

“The threshold for their use is lower because you don't have the risk to your own personnel,” says Michael Shoebridge from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“That ethical side of things needs to be part of the public discussion on this.”

This drone -- according to its manufacturer General Atomics -- can remain in the air for 27 hours.

As Pyne put it: “Medium altitude, long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft have a far greater range than smaller remotely piloted aircraft and can continuously observe an area of interest for much longer than manned reconnaissance aircraft.”

Shoebridge said because of the time they can remain airborne the drones can build a better picture of who is on the ground.

“But none of that removes the risk or people being killed that aren't party of the conflict -- it just reduces it,” he said.

However, he doesn’t believe Australia's drones would be used in the same way as they are by the US.

“We don't do the same kind of unilateral operations that the Americans do, and the use of these systems would be part of a broader coalition operation and therefore wrapped up rules of engagement,” he said.

This, he said, is the future of warfare.