May 16, 2013
Credit: Northrop Grumman
Australia is set to buy up to $3 billion worth of long-range maritime patrol drones and said on Thursday it had asked close ally the United States for detailed information and costings on the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft.
Australia wants to buy “unmanned aircraft capable of undertaking broad area maritime surveillance and fleet overwatch”, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said, with the Triton already at the top of the military’s wish list.
The Northrop Grumman Triton, which is the size of a small airliner with a 40-metre wingspan, costs around $100 million and can cruise at 20,000 metres for up to 30 hours.
The U.S. Navy is still testing the Triton and has plans to buy 68, with the first due in service in 2015. Australia could buy between six and seven to help with border patrol on its vast coastline and spot asylum seeker boats worrying lawmakers.
Australia wants drone aircraft to complement the intended purchase of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, which will replace ageing P-3 Orions now in service, Smith said.
The Triton carries a 360-degree radar and sensors including infra-red and optical cameras, and is being specifically developed for maritime surveillance and target tracking. It also carries systems to “talk” to manned P-8A aircraft.
Australia earlier this month released a new strategic blueprint after the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific, committing to buy up to 100 new Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighters as China and India beef up forces.
But with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government under pressure to find savings to respond to collapsing revenues, net defence spending has contracted to around 1.56 percent of GDP, or A$24.2 billion. As a percentage, spending is at the lowest level since 1938.