The RAAF is to operate a fleet of 12 to 16 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper armed medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft, the federal government announced on Friday.
“These new aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to a range of missions,” Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said in a statement.
“Medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely-piloted aircraft have a far greater range than smaller remotely-piloted aircraft and can continuously observe an area of interest for much longer than manned reconnaissance aircraft.”
The announcement to fulfil Defence’s Project AIR 7003 requirement comes more than two years after the project achieved initial ‘Gate 0’ approval in November 2016, and some 18 months after the expected Gate 1 milestone following a renewed effort by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) to pitch its Heron TP system.
“Remotely-piloted aircraft allow military commanders to make more informed decisions faster whilst providing the option to conduct strike and reconnaissance operations without risking the safety of aircrew,” Minister Pyne said.
“The aircraft will be operated under the same laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and rules of engagement as manned aircraft.”
It is not clear which variant of the Reaper family the RAAF will operate, either the existing US Air Force MQ-9A Reaper or the Type-Certifiable Predator B (marketed as the SkyGuardian), which the USAF has designated as the MQ-9B.
“The Government will now request pricing and availability data from the United States on Reaper variants to support future decision-making on the acquisition,” the government’s statement reads.
VIDEO – A Predator B promotional video
RAAF air vehicle operators have been training and operating on exchange with USAF operational Reaper units at Creech AFB and Holloman AFB in the US since February 2015, while the Defence Integrated Investment Program that was published with the 2016 Defence White Paper first publicly outlined a plan to acquire an armed unmanned aircraft to provide an integrated and persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and attack capability to support the Australian Defence Force and coalition forces.
The Air Force has been without a MALE UAV capability since retiring the IAI Heron I in mid-2017.
The RAAF had leased three Herons in late 2009 to meet an urgent operational requirement to provide surveillance support to Australian and coalition troops in Afghanistan, becoming the first unmanned aircraft to be operated by the RAAF (the Jinidivik target drone aside).