Updated 4 April with General Atomics’ statement.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s Project AIR 7003 medium altitude long endurance armed UAS has been cancelled according to a senior Department of Defence official.
While being questioned about increased funding to the ADF’s cyber capabilities in Senate Estimates on 1 April, Defence Associate Secretary Matt Yannopoulos revealed AIR 7003 – for which the General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian had been selected – will be cancelled
Under questioning from Labor Senator Penny Wong about funding for plans for the an expansion of the ADF’s manning and cyber capabilities, Mr Yannopoulos said, “There’s a project cancellation.” When pressed on which project, he said, “I think we have notified parties now…so it’s the SkyGuardian project.”
The SkyGuardian was selected for the Project AIR 7003 armed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) armed UAS requirement in November 2019 ahead of the similar USAF-spec MQ-9A Reaper Block 5, and an unsolicited bid from Israel’s IAI with its Heron TP UAS.
The SkyGuardian shares a common airframe and engine with the Reaper, but features a longer wingspan with greater fuel capacity, different sensors, and a sense-and-avoid system designed to allow it to operate safely in controlled airspace.
Australia was approved by the US State Department in April 2021 to buy 12 SkyGuardian air vehicles, 15 MTS-D EO/IR turrets, 16 AN/APY-8 Lynx synthetic aperture radars, SeaSpray 7500 maritime radars, 15 RIOTM COMINT systems, and other sensors and communications equipment.
The cancellation will be a blow to the Team SkyGuardian industry consortium which had built a team of Australian companies to develop and sustain the SkyGuardian in Australian service. The RAAF had also had officer in place with General Atomics in San Diego working with the company and MQ-9B lead customer – the UK’s Royal Air Force – on the UAS’s configuration and the development of its capabilities.
In a statement posted on the company’s website on 31 March, President of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), David R Alexander said, “The Australian Department of Defence has advised of its decision to cancel Project Air 7003, after nearly a decade of efforts toward that acquisition program.
“Project Air 7003 was expected to provide the Australian Defence Force with a reliable and desperately needed capability: An armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system providing persistent airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, and precision strike capability for both land and maritime environments.
“The cancellation is disappointing for a number of reasons,” it reads. “Project Air 7003 offered a cost-effective, multi-domain capability that is deeply relevant to Australia’s future strategic environment. Equally disappointing, our many Team SkyGuardian Australia partner companies have invested in the start-up and future support for this capability in Australia and will lose considerable sovereign capability opportunities following this decision.”