The Australian defense ministry has decided not to proceed with the purchase of MQ-9B SkyGuardian medium altitude long endurance (MALE) remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) as part of the AIR7003 Phase 1 project.
A total of 12 SkyGuardians, which Australia requested to buy from the United States in 2021 would have provided the country’s air force with a long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capability.
However, the acquisition has now been axed, with funding set to go other projects, including investment into the A$10bn Project REDSPICE (Resilience, Effects, Defence, Space, Intelligence, Cyber, and Enablers). Announcing the investment earlier this week, Australian defense minister Peter Dutton said the project would see electronic spy agency ASD significantly increase its ability to launch offensive cyber operations, noting that “Australia is already under cyber attacks.” Project REDSPICE has also been touted as the biggest ever investment in Australia’s cyber preparedness.
The cancellation of the SkyGuardian purchase was confirmed by Matt Yannapoulos, associate secretary of the Australian defense department, to the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee.
Australia originally selected the General Atomics-built MQ-9B Sky Guardian platform for its MALE RPAS needs in November 2019, securing a US State Department for the purchase in April 2021.
In addition to the RPAS, Australia had also planned to buy joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) tail kits and airfoil groups for guided and unguided bombs, as well as the Leonardo SeaSpray 7500 maritime radars and the SAGE 750 electronic surveillance measures system (ESM).
Commenting on the decision, General Atomics said the decision to cancel Project Air 7003 after nearly a decade of efforts toward that acquisition program was “disappointing for a number of reasons.”
“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,” the company said.
This is the second instance of Australia withdrawing from a major defense project recently. In September 2021, the country decided to cancel an A$90 billion program to buy 12 conventionally-powered attack submarines from French shipbuilder major Naval Group, choosing instead to go back to the drawing board to procure a nuclear-powered submarine with the help from the United States and the United Kingdom under the AUKUS agreement.