The Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) recent announcement that it will purchase up to seven MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft is a positive move towards capability development as outlined in the 2013 Defence White Paper. With the imminent release of the 2015 Defence White Paper, it is time Australian strategic policy makers have a pragmatic look at the benefits that an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) can provide to not only the ADF, but broader agencies such as the newly constructed Border Force.
The Triton is a fantastic aircraft that is well equipped to tackle the unique geostrategic concerns of current and future Australian strategic policy makers. With the ability to fly for up to 24 hours at high altitudes, it can stay in the air for a lot longer than conventional aircraft, such as the P-8A Poseidon it is set to supplement. Additionally, the ability to utilise a technologically advanced array of sensors – a 360 degree view of 2,000 nautical miles surrounding it – is second to none. These capabilities position it highly capable for patrolling the northern sea and air gaps of Australia, as well as providing useful assistance towards border protection forces and operations.
However, this fantastic system has already been limited in its capability, with the government declaring that a land based acquisition system is not necessary for the aircraft. The Ground Moving Target Indicator, which the US Navy offered to RAAF to be a part of, has been classed as unnecessary by the Australian government. Such a system would be an amazing asset for future operations, as its ability to track vehicles and individuals over land has proven to be pivotal in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade. Additionally, the capability would be of great use for border protection operations and units, with NORFORCE land based units in Australia’s north being able to utilise such an asset to leverage their extensive surveillance missions.
Why stop at planes though? The surge in UAS technology in the last decade has been phenomenal, with additional aircraft such as the Northrup built Fire Scout choppers already in use by the US Navy. The Royal Australian Navy has already shown interest in such a capability, with strong links to the current C model in production. Larger and more powerful than the current models in US Navy service, this chopper is ideally suited for reconnaissance operations onboard the new Landing Helicopter Deck ships, with the ability to stay in the air for 12 hours at a time.
Further, the 2015 Defence White Paper will hopefully look at final costing for the proposed Reaper drone capability for the RAAF. Reapers, which have grown in infamy over the last decade due to their prolific work rate in Afghanistan and Iraq, will provide a significant capability leap for the RAAF. A missile capable drone adept in precision targeting is a tried and tested asset, and would allow Australia to pursue and participate in current and future operations abroad. There are many outspoken critics of “killing drones”, but in the words of RAAF Chief Air Marshall Geoff Brown, “I certainly don’t see any difference from dropping a bomb from a Reaper or an F-18.”
UAS systems are rightfully being looked at in earnest by the Australian government and ADF. They provide a capability that manned aircraft simply cannot, in terms of their actual surveillance/weapon capabilities as well as their ability to put the aircraft in situations the ADF might not at other times due to the very real risk of losing a pilot.
Lachlan Pearce is a postgraduate student at the Australian National University.
Image credit: Flickr (Official U.S. Navy Page: Creative Commons)