Armed UAV decision near
A key Defence decision to be made this year is likely to be the selection of an armed medium altitude long endurance unmanned system under the $1-2 billion Project Air 7003 Phase 1. Although not a high profile programme such as the $10 billion Land 400 or $35 billion Sea 5000 projects, Air 7003 is nevertheless a ground breaking project, in as much as it represents a major shift in the way the Australian Defence Force intends to provide support for troops on the ground.
Air 7003 will build on the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) experience the RAAF has gained from operations of the IAI Heron I UAS in Afghanistan and later at home in Australia, and it will add an armed response option in the form of air-to-surface missiles and precision guided munitions.
Defence has quietly been paving the way for an armed UAS capability for a number of years, not least because of the negative press some US drone strikes have received here in Australia and the inclusion of Air 7003 in the recent Defence White Paper and associated Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), therefore came as no great surprise to many analysts.
The requirement for an armed MALE UAS is a direct response to ADF experiences in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, where the overwatch of coalition ground forces ‘outside the wire’ could turn into a close air support operation very quickly. Indeed, there are anecdotal reports of coalition troops refusing to patrol outside the wire in some provinces in Afghanistan without the guaranteed presence of a US armed drone.
The Australian Government leased the Heron I capability from a Canadian company in late 2009 in response to an urgent operational requirement to provide an overwatch capability for Australian Army and coalition troops when they were outside their base on patrol.