The Commonwealth has announced the selection of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned system to fulfil its Project AIR 7003 requirement for an armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) remotely piloted system.
The Gate 1 announcement comes more than two years after the project achieved Gate 0 in November 2016, and some 18 months after an expected Gate 1 milestone was delayed following a renewed effort by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) to pitch its rival Heron TP system. The announcement doesn’t define how many systems or air vehicles the RAAF will acquire, although the 2016 Defence White Paper had forecast a requirement of 12-16 systems.
“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.
“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,” he added. “The aircraft will be operated under the same laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and rules of engagement as manned aircraft.”
Despite the compelling capability offered by the Heron TP, the selection of the Reaper was not unexpected, and confirms Defence’s intent to acquire a fully integrated and interoperable system with Australia’s allies, primarily the US.
The only real question was which version of the Reaper the ADF would acquire, whether it was the USAF-common Block 5 Reaper, or General Atomics’ Certified Predator B/SkyGuardian which is on order for the UK and will be certified to operate in civilian-controlled airspace.
The General Atomics-led Team Reaper Australia has offered an attractive Australian Industry Capability (AIC) package, with original team members Cobham, CAE Australia, Raytheon, and Flight Data Systems joined late last year by TAE Aerospace, Rockwell Collins, Ultra Electronics Australia, Airspeed, and Quickstep Holdings.
“General Atomics, as the original equipment manufacturer of the Reaper, has partnered with a large number of Australian companies who provide a range of innovative sensor, communication, manufacturing and life-cycle support capabilities,” Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo said. “This is a great opportunity for Australian industry and demonstrates Australia’s world-class capability to support cutting-edge technologies.”
ADF 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. The RAAF retired its IAI Heron I capability in 2017, and earlier this year confirmed a Gate 2 decision to acquire the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton maritime ISR system from 2023.