MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — The acquisition of Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicle took a step closer yesterday with the Australian government announcement that it would issue a letter of request to the US for pricing and availability data.
In a joint statement on May 16, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Minister for Defense Materiel Mike Kelly said the letter would allow Australia to gain access to detailed cost and capability information, and establish a Foreign Military Sales Technical Case with the US Navy.
“The release of a Letter of Request for the FMS Technical Services Case does not commit Australia to the acquisition of the MQ-4C Triton. Defense will continue to investigate options for a mixed manned and unmanned fleet to inform Government consideration later in the decade,” the ministers said.
Australia has a requirement for up to seven high altitude long endurance UAVs under Phase 1B of Project AIR 7000.
A further phase of AIR 7000 will oversee the introduction of eight Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft in a project that broadly parallels the US Navy’s broad area maritime surveillance (BAMS) program.
Capt. Jim Hoke of the US Navy’s Persistent Maritime UAS office (PMA-262) welcomed Australia’s decision in a statement.
“Our team is eager to partner with Australia on this FMS planning case,” he said. “The development of a system based on the Triton UAS would significantly improve Australian and US capabilities in the region, enhancing our joint ability to respond to regional challenges, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
Although Triton is considered the favorite platform by many defense analysts, Australia is keeping its options open.
“Defence will continue to investigate options for a mixed manned and unmanned aircraft fleet to inform government consideration. Whilst the United States Navy has selected the MQ-4 Triton as its preferred unmanned system, the Australian Defence Force is yet to determine its unmanned solution for Air 7000 Phase 1B,” said a defense spokesperson.
“Defence may release further letters of request if more detailed cost, capability and availability information is required on unmanned systems.”
“Triton is certainly in the box seat however, as I expect we’d follow the USN down the path of a mix of MQ-4C/P-8A for the maritime patrol fleet,” said Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“We were partners in BAMS for a time, but then pulled out. The good thing is that it will result in some hard costing data getting into the public domain.”
In yesterday’s release, the Australian ministers also flagged the possibility of acquiring armed UAVs in the future.
“Defense will analyze the value of further investment in unmanned aircraft for focused area, overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, including for use in border security operations,” they said.
“This will include the potential expansion of the role of these assets in the Australian Defense Force to include interdiction.”