This is an explosive story that appears to have received no coverage in Australia. So many questions need to be asked. The privatisation of war, the targeting of so-called insurgents by Australians and the involvement of Israeli equipment:
Canadian aircrew played a significant, largely unheralded role in helping Australia get its unmanned aerial vehicle program off the ground in Afghanistan, federal documents show.
The assistance, which continued for more than a year, involved teaching Australian pilots how to fly the Israeli-built Heron drones.
The fact it went unheralded may not be a bad thing, considering the number of accidents the Aussies have had with their remote-controlled aircraft: two of them have crashed, while a third was damaged when its landing gear failed.
Reports from the Australian defence ministry suggest one of the incidents forced the private Canadian company that leases the unmanned aircraft to both countries to temporarily suspend flights for two days early last month.
Operations resumed once MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the B.C.-based defence contractor, checked the gear problem with the manufacturer.
The Australians said the suspension had minimal impact on their operations.
The Royal Australian Air Force was put under a tight timeline in the spring of 2009 by the government of the day and told to field a drone capability by the end of July of last year. The country has about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
The urgency called for help from someone already in Afghanistan with extensive experience flying UAVs, which meant Canada.
“Australian mission success for UAV operations in Afghanistan is dependent upon support from Canada,” said a May 21, 2009 briefing note prepared for Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk.
“While an independent RAAF Heron UAV capability cannot be established in that timeframe, the (Canadian Forces) can assist the RAAF in meeting their government’s direction by permitting trained (Australian) crews to operate CF-leased air vehicles,” said the note, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws.
The program was given top priority by both countries, each of which has had troops fighting in southern Afghanistan for the past four years.
“One of the things the Australians were very interested in was piggy-backing on our training, learning how we got trained and what lessons could they learn and then employ their guys under a mentorship program,” said Lt.-Col Guy Armstrong, the project manager for the Canadian air force’s UAV project in Afghanistan.
As part of the training, some Australian pilots were brought to CFB Suffield, Alta., where Canadians prepare their crews to fly the vehicles. That’s where one of the crashes happened earlier this year.
As part of the training plan, Australian operators flew missions in support of Canadian troops on Canadian aircraft.
The government in Canberra signed a contract with MDA in September 2009 to lease its own Herons; the first aircraft arrived in Kandahar three months later.
The decision allowed both countries to share a UAV operating cente in Kandahar as well as split the difference in terms of support and spares for the sophisticated drones, the “eyes in the sky” for soldiers.
The drones, which are not armed, monitor the battlefield for threats, such as when Taliban insurgents dig roadside bombs into the ground under cover of darkness.
Winnipeg-based UAV operations officer Maj. Art Jordan said one of the things that both countries found was that the training didn’t allow them much time to learn how to “fight the aircraft,” which is essentially combat skills.
“They learned enough to go on their own” by December 2009, Jordan said in a recent interview.
But the Australians were plagued with a series of crashes this year, according to defence industry reports in that country.
One accident happened when the aircraft slammed down short of the runway at Kandahar Airfield, causing damage estimated at more than C$1 million, according to media reports in that country.
The second crash happened in Alberta, but it was unclear how much damage was done and who was paying for it.
Drones, although reliable and less expensive than manned aircraft, have a high accident rate.