When Saving Lives Depends on Taking Them: The Flying Doctor & Elbit Systems

By: Jonathon Davidson

The Australian branch of an Israeli-owned weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems Australia, donated $12m to the Royal Flying Doctor Service in April this year for a new flight simulator. The flight simulator allows better training of potential pilots, and it’s likely the technology will save lives. But Elbit Systems, the company that paid for and provided the new simulator, ultimately depend on taking lives away in international warzones to continue existing.

So, in all seriousness – does that mean the Royal Flying Doctor Service are now partially complicit in war? Ultimately, it is hard to intersect the Hippocratic oath with the profit model of an Israeli weapons manufacturer.

When someone says “drone warfare,” it brings up dramatic images in our minds of bombing raids in foreign countries that we understand are vaguely Arab but probably couldn’t identify. Most Australians are aware that companies selling weapons and military vehicles for profit exist, but it seems like the kind of thing which largely goes on outside of Australia. It’s a safe bet most of us would feel more familiar with movies regarding the subject, than actual real-world company names. This might have seemed especially true if you live in the countryside, but now one significant player in the military industrial complex have a curious tie to everyday outback Australia.

Making Money Saving Lives vs. Making Money Taking Them 

Just in case the purchase of a flight simulator for RFDS by Elbit Systems Australia appears to be a non-issue with no larger philosophical dilemmas at hand, maybe it’s better to look at it the following way.

Elbit Systems, a company who depend on international instability and state-sponsored warfare to make a profit, bought the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a company who depend on saving lives, a brand spanking new flight simulator for their base in Dubbo, NSW.

Here, there is no point moralising about whether or not any company should be able to profit off war. They are there, probably here to stay, and that’s that.

Elbit Systems’ profit model literally depends upon the ongoing taking of lives across the world. This sounds sensational at first, but upon consideration, it’s completely logical: if there was no perceived need to take life there would be no market for weapons. Simply and truly, war is the profit model. Meanwhile, the RFDS’ profit model literally depends upon saving the lives of rural Australians. As if it wasn’t already clear, it’s no great leap to suggest that the two industries are diametrically opposed.

Orthodox critics might be quick to point out that Elbit Systems don’t purely just design weapons, and you could argue that flight simulation technology is one of Elbit Systems’ most developed and popular sales packages, and that on the grounds of being a legitimate service provider, there is nothing wrong with this contract.

And on one level that’s true, so long as you accept an incredibly narrow perception on larger implications.

Considerations Regarding Company Scope 

Simulation technology is only one small part of Elbit Systems’ total range of services – the company manufacture explosives and ammunition, and the equipment and vehicles required to launch them. Elbit Systems design and manufacture war-resistant vehicles like tanks and their corresponding parts, they design and manufacture unmanned drones and the optics technologies they are equipped with, they design and manufacture surveillance and counter-surveillance software, and they also design the software required to launch weapons from an unmanned vehicle thousands of miles away in another country.

So there is some definite broad culpability at play here, no matter which way you look at it. And, speaking of all things Elbit close to home, if we step outside the realm of flight simulators – they have a number of contracts with the Australian defence force, too. According to one news source, they straight out supplied our military in 2010.

In short, Elbit Systems aren’t just ‘indirectly’ involved in the western military industrial complex, and it isn’t controversial to suggest their equipment has likely led to casualties  – Elbit Systems are key players and providers. Furthermore, the purchasing of a flight simulator for the RFDS is not the full extent of their role in Australia.

Here, there is no point moralising about whether or not any company should be able to profit off war. They are there, probably here to stay, and that’s that. But in the context of funding the RFDS, there’s the ethical issue that Elbit Systems sell the weaponry to Israel which is used against Palestine. Elbit Systems are an Israeli company operating in cooperation with the Israeli military, after all. So when we’re informed of artillery strikes on the Gaza Strip, against occupied borders, into hospitals and schools: the tangible pieces of equipment responsible for these acts are the responsibility of providers like Elbit Systems. And these are the same actions which our government condemns.

Identifying Responsibility 

In short, Elbit Systems aren’t just ‘indirectly’ involved

These considerations need to be taken on board with regard to the $12m in funding for the RFDS simulator, because it raises the question of where exactly those twelve million dollars came from. That $12m represents profits from a pool of income which have come not only from flight simulation and software sales, but also the sale of highly sophisticated weaponry to the armies of the developed world – Israel, America, NATO, and us. Those expendable profits represent countless rounds and warheads which only sometimes eliminate their intended targets, as recent events have reminded us.

Australia has just admitted to being involved in an accidental bombing raid on our own allies in Syria, and our jets have been implicated in bombing raids on the Middle East before now in a number of conflicts. Australia has pledged its allegiance with America and Britain and it has even become an official target for terrorism in the encouraging monologues of ISIS propagandists. In short, we are no longer neutral bystanders – and as mentioned, Elbit Systems have a number of contracts with the Australian government, so in more than one way we are closer to the questions surrounding Elbit’s deal with RFDS than we’d perhaps like to be.

Implications for the Royal Flying Doctor Service 

If technology from Elbit Systems has led to civilian deaths, which is statistically likely given their expansive customer base, does that mean that the RFDS are benefiting off the proceeds of war crimes? I’ll admit that maybe it’s a stretch to go that far, but it’s also a stretch to go as far as saying that RFDS are completely innocent after taking the $12m.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service are Australia’s most iconic rural health care provider by far. If you have a serious car crash on the Nullarbor, it’s unlikely that you will be getting to a hospital without the Flying Doctor. The service is what it sounds like: specially designed small planes equipped with the same machines that you’d find in an ambulance respond to calls across Australia in hard-to-access locations and deliver emergency patients to hospitals in metropolitan areas with the technology required to save that patient’s life. It’s hard to find sterile world class equipment if your heart carks it on a cattle station.

Thanks to Elbit Systems and their generous $12m funding injection, the RFDS can train their pilots with more efficiency than ever before, thanks to the new cutting-edge flight simulator, which accurately mimics the cockpit and handling of a ‘Beechcraft King Air’ plane, the same type which the RFDS have in their fleet. It’s no doubt that this flight simulator will help to save lives, but it comes at the expense of many other lives before them in a different country in wars which Australia now have a stake in. It is this fact – along with the principle role of the Royal Flying Doctor Service – that make the case of its peculiar funding partnerships so interesting.

Is Technology Neutral?

Despite the presence of modern technologies designed to minimise risks typically associated with “outdated” equipment, like accidentally bombing civilians or your own allies, the most sophisticated armies in the developed world – that’s us, along with America, Britain and Israel – continue to demonstrate failings which cost unnecessary human lives. This throws the efficacy of the technology into question – the bombing of our own allies in Syria was due to human error, and unmanned drones are ultimately bound to the same folly in one way or another, either during construction, flight or interaction.

Perhaps, admittedly, there is something inherently innocent about a flight simulator. But even then, maybe this isn’t the case if the simulated flight is that of an aircraft designed to hold weapons.

And then that raises interesting questions about what exactly the $12m Elbit Systems gave the RFDS for – perhaps the ethical dilemmas are actually lessened by the nature of what they purchased. If that $12m was from a pool of profit made largely from selling weaponry, is it possibly permissible that it went towards a flight simulator, and not towards the purchase of medical supplies? Would it be any ‘worse,’ due to the hypocrisy, or any less a cause for inquiry, if that money instead purchased defibrillators, or anesthetics, or bandages? These are the types of questions which obviously have no correct answer one way or the other, but do promote some serious ethical pondering.

Perhaps, if the RFDS flight simulator had come from funding by the Department of Defence, there would be less of an dilemma. The broader issue here at hand is not that war and medicine have become interlinked. This is not a new development – war medics, for instance, are an identifiable character of many warzone scenes either real or imagined, and there is a close historical link between battleground wounds and the always improving pool of medical knowledge and practice.

There is also the additional factor that all things considered, if the reader will allow a dose of cynicism – the purchase of a flight simulator for the RFDS by Elbit Systems was likely a PR move, like when BP commission an artist to paint something positive on a wall somewhere. Perhaps the history of contracts between Elbit Systems and the Australian government and military have led to some friendships which allowed a sweet deal for RFDS.

Defining Operations 

The broader issue at hand is the link between a medical provider and a weapons manufacturer. If we accept that an individual soldier cannot be charged with murder in a warzone because they are following orders, then it is hard to find any party more culpable than the entity who provided the weapons used and the parties who purchased them.

Perhaps there is no better provider for a realistic flight simulator than a company who have a massively invested interest in unmanned flight, and from one angle, the decision is perfectly sound. I am assuming that the RFDS are happy with their new training facilities, and the fact that now they can charge pilots for training sessions and make a buck. Bucks are something that the RFDS have needed, and to be fair, it’s unlikely that they are in the position to reject a funding proposition from anyone at this point in time. It’s equally unlikely that everybody at RFDS is overjoyed by the partnership.

Ultimately, the people who are rescued by the Royal Flying Doctor after experiencing emergencies in remote bushland probably don’t give a flying about whether or not their pilot received training on equipment purchased by the profits of war or not, and we shouldn’t endorse any scenario where the Royal Flying Doctor receive no funding. However, in the name of upholding democracy and a beneficial economy, in the same way that political donations should be scrutinised, so too should the actions of powerful companies whose actions massively impact on human life in any combination of ways.