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Defence axes $1.3bn MQ-9B SkyGuardian program

written by Charbel Kadib | April 4, 2022

Defence has confirmed that it has scrapped a multibillion-dollar project to deliver long-range ISR and strike capability to the Royal Australian Air Force.

Matt Yannopoulos, associate secretary of the Department of Defence, has revealed to the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee, the cancellation of the AIR 7003 Phase 1 project – a $1.3 billion program to deliver General Atomics-built MQ-9B SkyGuardian armed medium altitude long endurance remotely piloted aircraft systems to the RAAF.

AIR 7003 Phase 1, which formed part of the Integrated Investment Program (IIP), aimed to deliver persistent airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and precision strike capability for the land and littoral environments.

The government had already spent approximately $10 million on the program, which secured approval for up to 12 aircraft from the US State Department in April last year.

Local industry was expected to provide a range of sensor, communication, manufacturing and life cycle support capabilities to support the development of the unmanned aircraft.

A Defence spokesperson said that the SkyGuardian has been scrapped following advice from Defence officials, with government deciding to reallocate funds for Project REDSPICE (Resilience, Effects, Defence, Space, Intelligence, Cyber, and Enablers) – a $9.9 billion investment over the next decade in the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

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Of the $4.2 billion committed for REDSPICE over the forward estimates, just $588.7 million is new funding.

Other funds reallocated from the IIP include prior commitments to ASD projects, which have been subsumed within REDSPICE, and a $236 million ICT remediation and modernisation initiative.

Defence is also drawing from both approved and unapproved funds from the SEA 1000 project.

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It comes after the Australian government confirmed in November 2020 that it would still buy 12 SkyGuardian drones, despite uncertainty over its capability over urban environments.

The Department of Defence then confirmed it was developing options for up to 12 General Atomics MQ-9B (SkyGuardian) aircraft to present for second pass government approval in 2022, as part of Project AIR 7003.

It came despite General Atomics’ failure to demonstrate the aircraft’s capability in urban environments, with the manufacturer forced to cancel a test flight in San Diego earlier this year in response to community pushback.

In October 2020, US regulators confirmed that General Atomics would need to reapply for permission to conduct test flights over densely populated urban environments in light of safety concerns.

However, a spokesperson from the Department of Defence said at that time that the decision to purchase SkyGuardian would not be affected by the current 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”.

Article courtesy of Defence Connect.

Comments (8)

  • Lee M

    says:

    There was concern from Defence, that the platform needed rotating flight personal dedicated to fly it, where as a preference for autonomy was the way forward . This platform still had a larger radar profile, vulnerability and cost verses future capability in such changing times certainly affected the purchase.

  • Warren Turner

    says:

    If they scrap the Sky Guardian purchase why not buy the Turkish Baytrackar TB-2 drone instead. Maybe they could even fly off HMAS Canberra and her sister ship protecting the fleet out to 25 klms or so. The Baytrackar has done Stirling work in the Ukraine War and certainly be an asset to the RAAF.

  • GT

    says:

    My understanding is that Home Affairs had an input into the decision. They were concerned for the unproven performance over built-up areas. If true, it doesn’t make sense. The MQ-9B is is a defence capability designed for persistent broad area ISR, EW and strike. Australia is vast and sparsely populated, particularly in the North. Seemingly this would be a capability that fills a niche between JORN, Wedgetail, Triton, Border Force / AMSA manned air assets and much smaller UAVs? What’s Home Affairs got to do with defence capabilities? While it’s capable of it, surely it was not intended for spying on Australians in Australian built-up areas?

  • Philip

    says:

    Remember the GAF Jindivik, (designed manufactured and exported) a pilotless drone. Russian aggression in Ukraine has highlighted the strength of drone on a battlefield.

  • Bill Oreally

    says:

    Another few million down the drain by Defence. They take the prize for lack of value for money every year with their purchase and cancellation choices. Almost like they don’t consider they are answerable at all to the Australian public. Boys with toys comes to mind.

  • Michael William Coote

    says:

    Pointless announcement until after the election as Labor have said they will purchase it.

    • Craig Beatty

      says:

      I wouldn’t bet on it. Labour don’t have a history with Defence. After a carbon tax and closing mining, it will be the least of our worries if Labour are elected. A job and food will be the priorities.

  • Craig Beatty

    says:

    What a disaster for this country. We desperately need that capability.

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