The November 16 decision that Australia will acquire armed UAVs – or Remotely Piloted Vehicles in the RAAF’s lexicon – from the ‘Reaper’ family came as no particular surprise. They are after all the world’s most prolific armed drone and since they are currently operated by seven nations, including the U.S., several of them are likely to be airborne every minute of every day.
However, many of the details – even fundamentals such as the preferred variant – remain shrouded in mystery and might not be known until the middle of 2019. This is something of a surprise since the capability has been studied for years and Defence has accumulated not only most technical details but has already had personnel in the United States operating them.
The RAAF preference for ‘Reapers’, made by General Atomics, became apparent in February 2015 when it was announced that Australians would begin training at two U.S. bases: Holloman and Creech. But despite the evident enthusiasm for the capability, the acquisition moved slowly – probably a combination of the usual bureaucratic inertia and a fierce lobbying campaign by arch rival, Israeli Aircraft Industries with the ‘Heron TP.” We have covered this in the detail to which it has been possible to do so and it seems fair to say that the Israelis were able to make little headway, despite a lot of effort, and were unable to achieve their initial goal of forcing a competition between the two systems.
Having made the announcement, Defence now needs to undertake further work to decide what they will acquire because there are several ‘Reaper’ types available – though the choice basically looks to be between the older USAF version, or the new ‘SkyGuardian’ on order for Britain and as of November 19 also for Belgium. India has also purchased a further variant of this variant called the ‘SeaGuardian’.
The ‘SkyGuardian’ – known as the MQ-9B – is the most modern of the variants and is substantially more capable than its predecessors. With endurance of up to 40 hours, a rapidly reconfigurable payload, a sense and avoid system, and able to carry a variety of weapons, it seems the logical choice. However, it is still under development and the RAAF has apparently not ruled out the previous generation MQ-9A, the first of which flew way back in 2001 but are still in production. Having said that, they have received block upgrades to keep them current.
In the slightly cryptic words of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne’s media release:
“The Government will now request pricing and availability data from the United States on Reaper variants to support future decision-making on the acquisition.”
Since Britain is the lead customer, Defence might be better off speaking with them, especially since they have already signalled its willingness to assist Australia with our program. As the launch customer, the Royal Air Force is heavily involved in the trials program – at the heart of which is the ability of the drone to operate seamlessly in commercial air space: the Holy Grail of UAS / RPV developers.
Deciding on the platform will probably also determine the acquisition strategy. If the MQ-9B is preferred – and that is the logical choice – then a direct commercial purchase from General Atomics makes sense. However, if for some reason commonality with the USAF is key, then buying via the well-established Foreign Military Sales system will be the way to go.
To support their prospects in Australia – and perhaps to fend off a possible push from IAI – General Atomics have progressively built up an impressive Australian industry team that currently has 10 members: Cobham, CAE, Raytheon, Flight Data Systems, TAE Aerospace, Quickstep, AirSpeed, Rockwell Collins Australia, Ultra, and SentientVision.
These companies are involved in a broad cross section of capability and they will not only be involved in the support of Australia’s drones – when we actually get them – but many are also developing technologies with considerable export potential. Without picking favourites, three in particular spring to mind: Ultra, with an electronic surveillance pod; Sentient with their ViDAR broad area surveillance package; and Collins with battlefield data relay capabilities similar to the much better-known Northrop Grumman BACN airborne gateway.
These could not only find their way onto the Australian aircraft – of which between 12 and 16 will be acquired – but might have considerable export potential to other ‘Reaper’ users. These systems could all be housed in a common pod, which is being developed by AirSpeed Australia. A number of other technologies are being evaluated and will be presented to the RAAF in the coming months.