At first it appeared to be an April fool’s joke, but officials confirmed in Senate Estimates that the government is about to scrap the purchase of long range, uncrewed MQ-9Bs.  This extraordinary decision will be depriving the RAAF of an important element of combat and surveillance capability – as the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia is clearly demonstrating.

The version of the aircraft that the RAAF was set to acquire is based on the U.K. SkyGuardian program and would have seen an initial 12 aircraft based at Edinburgh in South Australia.  With endurance of more than 24 hours and armed with a variety of weapons such as Hellfire missiles and laser guided bombs, Predators have become the platform of choice for strikes against terrorist organisations throughout the Middle East and Africa.

They are operated by a number of countries including the US, UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands and India.  In this region it is possible that MQ-9Bs will be acquired by Japan, Taiwan and possibly South Korea.  As part of a very ambitious Australian industry plan, General Atomics had proposed developing a multi-national service hub in Adelaide.  The company has probably spent around $30 million on the project over a decade and is unlikely to recover a single cent.

The Ukraine armed forces have been using their UCAVs with devastating effect, destroying dozens of Russian main battle tanks, artillery pieces, multiple launch rocket systems and a variety of other vehicles.  The same platforms – manufactured in this case by Turkey – are credited with being largely responsible for the victory of Azerbaijan against heavily armed Armenia in the 20202 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The decision for Australia to acquire an armed UCAV was taken in 2015 and the announcement of the selection of General Atomics occurred in 2018.  Since that time the company has been working with the RAAF to refine the nature of the purchase, including issues such as the satellite communication system to be fitted and discussions about the weapons mix.  A number of RAAF personnel have been located in the UK and the US as part of the project.

Cancelling it makes no sense.  The scant information available from Senate Estimates indicates that Defence Minister Peter Dutton has asked the Department to identify projects that need to be cancelled to free up funds to hire more personnel, particularly in support of the cyber security announcement made in the budget. Known broadly as project REDSPICE, it seeks to double the number of Australian Signals Directorate staff to 1,900.  Given Australia’s current full employment circumstances that will be a difficult-to-impossible goal to achieve in the next few years.

If indeed savings are required – and it’s hard to imagine why given the similarly abrupt cancellation of the Attack class submarine project after wasting $4 billion – there are plenty of candidates.  These could include scrapping or cutting back on the number of M1A2 main battle tanks to be purchased or looking at reducing the number of Boxer 8×8 vehicles on order.

It seems bizarre that Defence Minister Dutton has not made a comment on this, leaving it to a hapless bureaucrat to mention the cancellation of a $1 billion project almost in passing.  One wonders what this will do for Australia’s international reputation, coming as it does after the equally poorly handled cancellation of the Attack class submarine with France’s Naval Group.  So much for the government trying to highlight their national security credentials in the lead up to the election.

While the government isn’t saying anything that’s not the case for the Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O’Connor, who issued a statement saying:

“In 2019, Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price said “Local companies that provide a range of innovative sensor, communication, manufacturing and life-cycle support capabilities will have the opportunity to showcase their capabilities throughout this development process.”

“The Government didn’t even have the good grace to tell Australian defence industry the program was scrapped.

“Cancelling a $1.3 billion project without notice will reverberate around Australian defence industry, already reeling from the Attack Class cancellation and the secret-offshoring of the Pacific Support Vessel.

“The SkyGuardian cancellation demonstrates this government doesn’t care about Australian manufacturing. Defence industry firms will rightly ask what is next on this Government’s secret chopping block?

“The only reason we are aware of this cut to Australia’s defence capability is because of federal Labor’s scrutiny at Senate Estimates.

“How on earth can Australians trust this Government to deliver what they promise when they hide unpopular decisions.”

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Less than a week ago the proposed FY23 budget showed that USAF would cease buying MQ-9As and would transfer others to another US agency – assumed to be CIA. ADF has recently selected the Being Insitu Integrator/Blackjack and RAAF has order MQ-4C Tritons. Do we really need an intermediate and potentially vulnerable UAV in the post insurgency world?

    • The big difference is that the MQ-9A/Bs are all armed – that’s not the case for either Integrator or Triton. I think there is a good case for a long endurance UAV with weapons, able to loiter over an area of interest for hours. They also have a very good sensor suite – EO and radar – and so are considered multi-mission. As I wrote, armed drones have been devastatingly effective not only presently in Ukraine but a couple of years ago in Nagorno-Karabakh.

  2. Hi Kym. On why cancel the MQ-9B Program? Possibly our Australian DoD/RAAF perceives a change in Australia’s mission priorities away from MidEast-Afghan insurgencies and towards China as THE pressing threat.

    A more survivable UCAV is needed. The success of the part Australian Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat, SO FAR, would have been noticed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_MQ-28_Ghost_Bat

    Of course the MQ-28 Ghost Bat’s loiter-time and speed characteristics are different from the Predator variants. But a relevant tradeoff is the MQ-28 Ghost Bat’s ability to survive fighting Chinese forces (even future Chinese bases in the Solomons…).

    A variant of the present MQ-28 Ghost Bat configuration may be significantly extended wing area, increasing range and loiter time…. Not the same as Predator variants, but maybe what we need.

    • Thanks for that – I like your thinking to the extent that Ghost Bat seems to be going well and has a lot of potential. However, I’m attracted to the idea of multiple tiers of UAVs, particularly given the loitering and surveillance capabilities of the MQ-9B. I think the real reason why AIR 7003 was cancelled was because RAAF realised that the MQ-9B would come with British weapons – Brimstone and Paveway II – which of course is completely unacceptable to the dominant pro-USAF faction in both the RAAF and CASG. Funding for REDSPICE is obvious nonsense, designed only to fool General Atomics and their Australian industry team. I’ll have a bit more to say about this in the near future.

  3. Hi Kym, once again defence has shown a proclivity for short range thinking. Its wonderful that the MQ-4C Tritons are still on the cards, but its all very nice to detect from a far, but not being able to respond asap is hardly smart. I know that Defence had reservations about having to man the MQ-9A and autonomy is the direction Defence wants to go, but not being able to have “Deterence” and strike deep, is a considerable deficit for defence capability.

  4. We really only have a government that cant lie straight in bed, seriously who will ever trust a contract from our government ever again. We will have to pay up front to get any enthusiasm from Primes. As for this defence minister, maybe the QLD police is the best he is capable of.

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