US approves sale of MQ-9B Reaper drones to Australia

written by Adam Thorn | April 26, 2021

The US federal government has given the green light for Australia to purchase up to 12 General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones.

In a statement, the State Department said it was vital to the national interest to “assist our ally in developing and maintain a strong and ready self-defence capability”.

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The Australian government announced its intention to purchase the hunter-killer aircraft in 2018, but the acquisition has been controversial given supposed problems with it operating in urban environments.

The deal is likely to be worth more than $2 billion and is part of “Project AIR 7003”, a program to deliver an armed remotely piloted aircraft system to the ADF.

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States. Australia is one of our most important allies in the western Pacific,” the United States Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.

“The strategic location of this political and economic power contributes significantly to ensuring peace and economic stability in the region.”

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Last year, General Atomics’ was unable to demonstrate the aircraft’s capability in urban environments, with the manufacturer forced to cancel a test flight in San Diego in response to community pushback.

US regulators then confirmed that the planemaker would need to reapply for permission to conduct test flights over densely populated urban environments in light of safety concerns.

Australia’s own Department of Defence played down the worries, stating that the decision to purchase SkyGuardian would not be affected by domestic air space restriction in the US.

According to Defence, worries over regulatory compliance, aviation safety and airworthiness would be addressed “well ahead of achieving initial operating capability” currently scheduled for the “mid-2020s”.

“The variant of SkyGuardian that Defence is purchasing will be certified to similar standards as manned aircraft. This is to ensure the safety of people on the ground and other airspace users,” a spokesperson said.

“While this is yet to be completed, this will enable operations in domestic airspace.”

The spokesperson noted that in Australia, testing would be guided by the Defence Aviation Safety Regulations, rather than Civil Aviation Safety Regulations that govern civil aviation.

“This includes Defence-specific regulations to operate unmanned aircraft systems in Australia,” the spokesperson added.

Defence added that it would work closely with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to ensure Defence regulations are compatible with CASA’s guidelines.

The MQ-9B is a variant of the MQ-9, billed as the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.

It can fly for more than 40 hours and is more cost-effective than a similar manned equivalent.

The announcement comes two months after Boeing announced its Loyal Wingman prototype drone had completed its first test flight.

Loyal Wingman, fully unveiled to the world in May, is the first military aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years.

It uses AI to help both manned and unmanned aircraft in mid-air, hence the Australian project name Loyal Wingman.

Boeing said it flew under the supervision of one of its test pilots, who monitored the aircraft from a ground control station at the Woomera Range Complex.

“The Loyal Wingman’s first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the Air Force and Boeing Australia, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the successful test,” said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability.

Additional reporting by Charbel Kadib.

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