The cancellation yesterday of Defence's contract with Boeing under JP129, and the current lack of an operational TUAV system within the ADF inventory, highlight a rather alarming capability gap. Notwithstanding the Army's successful use of Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADF's inventory is surprisingly low.
The ADF is acquiring precision-guided weapons, both line of sight (such as the JDAM, Javelin and Hellfire) and stand-off, such as the JASSM and JSOW. This is a welcome increase in its offensive capability, but the ADF currently lacks certain capabilities which may prevent it getting the best from these weapons under the sort of circumstances in which they're being used by the US and UK, for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) require that force is used with precision, discrimination and humanity, and only where there is a clear military justification. Precision-guided weapons which can hit pinpoint targets very precisely and accurately are increasingly essential for compliance with the LOAC, especially in urban-based counter-insurgency operations where there is a high risk of casualties among civilians and non-combatants.
Precision guided weapons are also vital in conventional operations where battle lines are confused and there is a real risk of fratricide: the ability to take out the enemy in pin-point strikes at low or zero risk to friendly forces is critically important.
But does Australia have the Intelligence-gathering, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command and Control (C2) capabilities necessary to use these new weapons to their full potential?
'Time-sensitive targeting' is a bit of a buzz-phrase at present - it suggests the ability to react quickly when a fleeting target presents itself: a mobile missile launcher, or air defence radar, or terrorist chieftain. However when such fleeting targets appear (and especially in urban or settled areas with a civilian population) commanders cannot legally launch an immediate strike without doing enough first to satisfy themselves (and any subsequent inquiry) that they have done so in compliance with the LOAC.
This means having persistent ISR assets such as intelligence-gathering networks, surveillance UAVs and manned observation posts which can watch targets continuously for extended periods (possibly for days at a time), both to ensure the targets don't move and to ensure that civilians aren't in the vicinity already, or unexpectedly gather at the spot just as an attack is launched.
Aside from the Special Forces, for whom this type of operation is part of their strategic strike role, the ADF still lacks any organic ability to carry out this type of persistent ISR.
The ADF's current NCW Roadmap and DCP address this issue, but the new Defence White paper, and Defence's current financially constrained position, mean the next DCP could be very different from the last. This will tell us a great deal about Defence's priorities: the ISR capabilities required to help the ADF's new inventory of smart weapons deliver its full potential aren't that expensive; the White Paper and the new DCP will tell us how important the government thinks they are.