The Royal Australian Air Force’s Project AIR 7003 medium altitude long endurance armed UAS has been cancelled according to a senior Department of Defence official.
While being questioned about increased funding to the ADF’s cyber capabilities in Senate Estimates on 1 April, Defence Associate Secretary Matt Yannopoulos revealed AIR 7003 – for which the General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian had been selected – will be cancelled
Under questioning from Labor Senator Penny Wong about funding for plans for the an expansion of the ADF’s manning and cyber capabilities, Mr Yannopoulos said, “There’s a project cancellation.” When pressed on which project, he said, “I think we have notified parties now…so it’s the SkyGuardian project.”
The SkyGuardian was selected for the Project AIR 7003 armed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) armed UAS requirement in November 2019 ahead of the similar USAF-spec MQ-9A Reaper Block 5, and an unsolicited bid from Israel’s IAI with its Heron TP UAS.
The SkyGuardian shares a common airframe and engine with the Reaper, but features a longer wingspan with greater fuel capacity, different sensors, and a sense-and-avoid system designed to allow it to operate safely in controlled airspace.
Australia was approved by the US State Department in April 2021 to buy 12 SkyGuardian air vehicles, 15 MTS-D EO/IR turrets, 16 AN/APY-8 Lynx synthetic aperture radars, SeaSpray 7500 maritime radars, 15 RIOTM COMINT systems, and other sensors and communications equipment.
The cancellation will be a blow to the Team SkyGuardian industry consortium which had built a team of Australian companies to develop and sustain the SkyGuardian in Australian service. The RAAF had also had officer in place with General Atomics in San Diego working with the company and MQ-9B lead customer – the UK’s Royal Air Force – on the UAS’s configuration and the development of its capabilities.
In a statement posted on the company’s website on 31 March, President of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), David R Alexander said, “The Australian Department of Defence has advised of its decision to cancel Project Air 7003, after nearly a decade of efforts toward that acquisition program.
“Project Air 7003 was expected to provide the Australian Defence Force with a reliable and desperately needed capability: An armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system providing persistent airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, and precision strike capability for both land and maritime environments.
“The cancellation is disappointing for a number of reasons,” it reads. “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.”
This article was written by Andrew McLaughlin and published by ABDR on April 1, 2022.
Concept art of an RAAF MQ-9B SkyGuardian. (GA-ASI)
And Colin Clark in his Breaking Defense article published on April 1, 2022 provided his take on the cancellation:
In what was a pretty uncomfortable and revealing hearing in Australia’s Senate today, the Ministry of Defense disclosed it has canceled a deal to buy MQ-9B drones from General Atomics — a sale seven years in the making.
The cancellation occurred largely as a result of Australia’s decision to commit the considerable sum of $10 billion AUD ($7.4 billion USD) for the next 10 years — not previously funded — on the Australian Signals Directorate. Specifically, defense officials said the decision to cancel was made to fund REDSPICE, as the effort to double the number of personnel at ASD is known.
General Atomics, which has generally kept a pretty low public profile, issued a lengthy statement, the gist of which was they aren’t very happy. Armed drones, of course, have played critical roles in the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war and in Ukraine. For Australia, a vast country with regional and global operations, Project Art 7003 — as it was formally known — seemed a very good fit, even at a price tag of $1.3 billion AUD ($980 million USD).
The Aussie version was based on Britain’s SkyGuardian program. There would have been an initial 12 aircraft based at Edinburgh in South Australia.
“Project Air 7003 was expected to provide the Australian Defence Force with a reliable and desperately needed capability: An armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system providing persistent airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare and precision strike capability for both land and maritime environments,” David Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said in a statement.
“The cancellation is 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.”
That’s a clear dig at the current government, which made the decision to kill the sale, that has made investing in Australian companies and a resilient Aussie supply chain a key policy goal.
In what could serve as a coda to the deal, Alexander added that: “If recent world events have shown us anything, it’s that such capabilities are crucial to the future of global defense and security.” He said the company remains committed to working in the Indo-Pacific region.
Kym Bergman of Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter estimates that GA has spent some $30 million of its own cash to bolster its offering in Australia. Defense Minister Peter Dutton, who rarely misses a chance to grab a headline or two, clearly didn’t think this was a winner as he has said nary a word about the cancellation.
The Labor Party defense shadow minister jumped on the Liberal Party’s action saying in a statement that the “program has been secretly cancelled without reference in the budget.” The news of the cancellation came when Sen. Timothy Ayres pressed a government official.