18 Jun 2014

Defence considers wider use of drones

8:31 am on 18 June 2014

The Ministry of Defence is considering using drone technology more widely than previously, but is adamant its use will be for intelligence and surveillance purposes only.

A Predator drone at a United States airstrip.

A Predator drone at a United States airstrip. Photo: AFP

The technology was used to support New Zealand's ground troops when they were in Afghanistan, but the 2014 Defence Capability Plan released on Tuesday said the ministry was now considering using it to monitor the exclusive economic zone, as well as supporting ground forces.

But Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman baulked at the use of the word 'drone' to describe the technology - labelled as remotely piloted vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles by the New Zealand Defence Force.

Dr Coleman said it would not be technology which could be armed in any way.

"As a basic concept, we're talking about anything in the air with a camera on it that can send pictures down to earth," he said.

"But there's no link here to anything remotely connected with drones as they've been portrayed in the media to do with drone strikes, which the US have carried out in parts of the world.

"This is purely a modality for carrying cameras which can rely pictures back to ground forces."

Dr Coleman said it was commonplace technology which was used by militaries worldwide, and the hardware could be used to replace older equipment such as the P3 Orions for surveillance, as this could be cheaper and more efficient.

"This is not some sinister reconnaissance tool for use on anything other than the enemy in combat situations, and ultimately to protect our forces," he said.

Jonathan Coleman.

Jonathan Coleman. Photo: RNZ

Technology ahead of the law

Green Party defence spokesperson Kennedy Graham said technology was often one step ahead of the law, and he would like some kind of legislative framework in place before the use of the vehicles was extended.

Much of the new hardware had dual capabilities for civilian and military purposes, he said.

"If we develop these technologies we have to, I think, think through both the moral and the legal dimension of the possibility of their military use.

"And even if we didn't, even if we just kept them simply to surveillance, the fact is that we would then be plugging in to an intelligence network with other countries, and that is already happening, as we well know, in Afghanistan."

Labour Party defence spokesperson Phil Goff said the New Zealand Defence Force needed to make it clear exactly what it had in mind for the technology.

"I don't think New Zealanders would be keen on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, as they call them, being used to assassinate people in civilian areas with a potential loss of innocent civilian lives."

But Mr Goff did not have a problem with it being used for surveillance.

"To use it for general surveillance purposes, without having that attack capacity, I think that may well make economic and technological sense, provided they can find the form of drone that could usefully carry out those functions."

Dr Coleman said it was a project for the future and work had not actually started on exploring the options around the drones. However, it was where military technology was heading, he said.