On November 16 the Australian ministers for Defence, Christopher Pyne, and Defence Industry, Steven Ciobo, jointly announced the selection of the General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper over the IAI Heron TP to answer the Royal Australian Air Force’s requirement for an armed RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system), as defined by Project Air 7003 in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. No further details have been released as negotiations regarding pricing and availability are ongoing, although Australian media outlets suggest that the contract could cover a significant number of air vehicles that range from eight to as many as 18.
“These new aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to a range of missions,” said Pyne, adding, “The aircraft will be operated under the same laws of armed conflict, international human rights law, and rules of engagement as manned aircraft.”
GA-ASI launched Team Reaper Australia at the Avalon airshow in February 2017 to offer the Reaper for Air 7003, bringing together a number of Australian companies and local subsidiaries, including Cobham, CAE, Raytheon, Flight Data Systems, TAE Aerospace, Quickstep, AirSpeed, Rockwell Collins Australia, Ultra, and SentientVision. “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,” said Ciobo. “This is a great opportunity for Australian industry and demonstrates Australia’s world-class capability to support cutting-edge technologies.”
Interoperable with RPAS assets of key allies, the MQ-9s are being procured to support Australian and coalition land forces and also to assist disaster relief and humanitarian emergency operations. A final contract is expected in 2021 and deliveries should follow soon after. The exact version of the Reaper to be acquired has yet to be declared.
Currently, the RAAF is without a MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) RPAS capability, having flown its last mission with leased IAI Heron 1s on June 23 last year. The unarmed type was leased from MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates to provide ISR support for Australian and coalition forces in southern Afghanistan as part of Operation Slipper. Operated by No. 5 Flight, the fleet in Afghanistan eventually numbered three air vehicles, which flew more than 27,000 operational hours between January 2010 and November 2014, plus a single aircraft at RAAF Amberley in Australia for training.
After withdrawal from Afghanistan, No. 5 Flight retained two Herons for training and exercise support in Australia, flying mostly from Amberley and Woomera. Following the end of Heron operations in 2017, a number of operators were embedded with U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper units to maintain RPAS competence and to gain experience of armed RPAS operations in advance of the delivery of the Air 7003 air vehicles.