Double jeopardy for Australia’s UAV programmes

Australia-UAV
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV.

The Australia Department of Defence’s (DoD’s) efforts to acquire high-end unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have entered uncertain ground following the separate decisions of the US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN) to curtail future spending on the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-4C Triton UAVs.

GA-ASI MQ-9 UAV

The USAF’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget request revealed that the service expects to purchase its final batch of 24 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAVs in 2020, with production essentially ceasing in 2021 with a total of 337 air vehicles delivered, someway short of the expected total of 363 MQ-9s. This potential change has a number of implications.

Australia had earlier shortlisted the GA-ASI MQ-9B SkyGuardian – which is a derivative of the Reaper and designed to be certifiable for operations in unsegregated airspace – in November 2019 to provide the ADF with its first armed MALE UAV capability, and was poised to set aside as much as $880 million for government considering in the 2021-22 timeframe.

The revelation will be a blow to the company’s plans to secure long-lead components and subsystems such as sensors and engines and its ability to retain skilled labour, with the associated fallout possibly impacting its other ongoing programmes such as the SkyGuardian.

MQ-4C Triton UAV

Meanwhile, production Lots 6 and 7 of Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAVs – comprising one Australian and four US air vehicles – will be suspended until at least FY 2023 under the USN’s proposed FY2021 budget.

The DoD earlier announced in June 2018 that Australia would acquire six Tritons under Project Air 7000 Phase 1B, with the first air vehicle expected to enter service in mid-2023 and all six fully operational by late 2025.

Northrop Grumman has reportedly proposed an alternative to the USN and DoD, by accelerating the production of five Australian Tritons to the current and funded Lot 5 tranche, riding on the production of air vehicles – one Australian and two US – already contracted for.

The DoD said it is in communication with the company and USN regarding the possible pause, although a spokesperson noted that it has yet to be approved by the US government.

by JR NG