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Increasing Australia’s uncrewed strike capabilities

With expectations that the Defence Strategic Review will bring renewed emphasis on uncrewed aerial vehicles as a means of increasing the mass and strike capacity of the ADF, programs like the cancelled AIR 7003 may have a new lease on life, while potentially adding some historic capabilities back to the ADF’s inventory. 

With expectations that the Defence Strategic Review will bring renewed emphasis on uncrewed aerial vehicles as a means of increasing the mass and strike capacity of the ADF, programs like the cancelled AIR 7003 may have a new lease on life, while potentially adding some historic capabilities back to the ADF’s inventory. 

Australia has had a rather mixed history with acquiring uncrewed systems. While programs like the highly publicised Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat have garnered much attention, the recently cancelled AIR 7003 program which would deliver a modest fleet of MQ-9B SkyGuardian remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS), as they are designated by manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), highlight this inconsistency. 

Meanwhile, mounting commentary from across the defence and strategic policy community points to a growing recognition by Australia that uncrewed systems, particularly those in the aerial domain, will play an increasingly important role in expanding the mass of Australia’s defence capabilities, and breathing much-needed new life into strike capabilities that have been significantly lacking since the retirement of the venerable F-111s. 

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Adding further to this now long-recognised capability gap is the glaring loss of maritime strike capability, particularly following the retirement of the final Perth Class guided missile destroyer in 2006 and critically for operating independently in the Indo-Pacific, the end of Australia’s fixed-wing, fleet air arm with the retirement of the HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne aircraft carriers without replacement in the 1980s, something highlighted in a recent piece for ASPI’s Strategist by Vice Admiral (ret’d) and former Chief of Navy David Shackleton, who said: “By 2006, when the RAN’s final Anzac frigate, HMAS Perth, was commissioned, the class had 64 cells, but the ESSMs they contained were to be used for self-defence. In the interim, two of six older Perry Class ships were decommissioned to provide funds to upgrade the remaining four, including adding eight VLS cells.

Shackleton added, “That gave each ship 48 cells, and an improved capability with the longer-range SM-2. After modernisation, the Perry Class went from six ships to four, but the total number of cells went from 240 to 192.”

In the context of this, we have the rapidly evolving and deteriorating threat environment, characterised by the increasingly peer and near-peer capability of competitor platforms and the proliferation of advanced integrated air and missile defence systems, anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that pose a serious challenge to the traditional advantages of both the United States and more broadly its key allies, like Australia. 

Responding to these challenges is at the core of the upcoming Defence Strategic Review (DSR), while ensuring that Australia equally is capable of a tactical overmatch for potential adversaries across the multi-domain spectrum — this is critical across our maritime approaches, in support of expeditionary operations — and in the realm of strike, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance to help inform and shape the decisions of our policymakers. 

Distributed lethality — the key to surviving and thriving in a contested environment 

As our adversary’s capabilities continue to evolve and complicate the decision-making process, the ability to project “impactful projection”, as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles highlights, will require a resilient, adaptable, and relatively novel approach to ensure the Australian warfighter can fight and win in the contemporary battlespace. 

Australia’s seemingly failed pursuit of MQ-9B SkyGuardian remotely piloted aerial systems as part of AIR 7003, may in fact provide a mechanism to solving these complex challenges, while also expanding the nation’s capacity to enact a doctrine of “impactful projection” — just with a slightly different approach to its original plan. 

Commencing development in 2017, as a part of the company’s Mojave initiative — the short take-off and landing (STOL) package for the MQ-9B platform delivers tactical flexibility to a platform, that has, in large part been limited to traditional, land-locked and counter-insurgency operations, to bring the capability in a survivable, resilient, and tactically flexible package.

GA-ASI explains that the “MQ-9B STOL configuration will consist of an optional wing and tail kit that can be installed in less than a day. The core aircraft and its subsystems remain the same. Operators can perform the modification in a hangar or on a flight line, delivering a capability that otherwise would require the purchase of a whole new aircraft.

“The wings fold so that MQ-9B STOL could be parked on the deck or in the hangar bay, just like other naval aircraft. When it’s time to launch, operators will start the aircraft, unfold the wings, and take off over the bow without the need for catapults. GA-ASI believes the US Navy and Marine Corps will take note of this innovation as it opens the door to persistent and long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations over blue water.”

Speaking to Defence Connect at Avalon, General Atomics Australia, director international strategic development for Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia, Warren Ludwig, AM said, “The standard take-off and landing capability of an MQ-9B is up to 4,000 feet. The STOL kit we’re still working on, but it is designed to give us the ability off an (Australian) LHD-sized flat top without the launch and recovery gear — a lot of these LHDs don’t have catapults and recovery gear ... and there are first-world customers very interested in this concept.”

This approach radically changes the tactical operating profile of the aircraft, opening up a range of new capability options for Australian consideration in particular — providing the Navy and Air Force with a common platform while expanding the distributed sensor and effector network across the multi-domain environment, particularly across the Indo-Pacific. 

“With STOL, if you can operate off a few-hundred metres of flat area, that would also bring a lot of very austere runways in the region, as it is, we can do 4,000 feet which opens up a lot of airfields that P-8s and those sorts of things can’t get into,” Ludwig added. 

This operational flexibility provides even further capability options when moving to the payload scope, with the platform designed to incorporate both ISR and strike capabilities to provide deployed forces, particularly deployed naval and marine forces, as is the case with the United States Marines — a survivable, persistent support capability — despite operating in contested airspace. 

“It is designed for ISR and strike, it is worth saying, the concepts of how you use these things, everyone is looking at contested airspace. Can you operate in contested airspace? Which means you need stand-off and long-range sensors, which means you also need small UAS ... small UAS that come off platforms like the MQ-9B and the US Army’s Grey Eagle. The notion of being a shooter isn’t as important to some of our close allies, they're more interested in having targeters for long-range fires from either the land, air or sea domain and that is exactly where they’re seeing the strength of the platform now,” Ludwig explained to Defence Connect. 

“When you look at the stand-off range, you’re looking at 200+ kilometres, maybe more, you need a long range weapon, we do have customers that are now saying, ‘alright we do want that long-range weapons to match that stand off’ — JSM/NSM for this size aircraft is the go-to sort of capability,” Ludwig added. 

This combination of capability, including the capacity to potentially carry up to four JSM/NSM missiles currently in procurement with the Australian Navy to replace the ageing Harpoon anti-ship missile, expanding on this, Ludwig added, “two (JSM/NSM) would probably be the ideal mix and would still allow you to have 12 hours”.

Importantly, a platform like the MQ-9B, when deployed from austere land bases, or, more flexibly, from a Canberra Class LHD, can also serve to provide Australia’s other planned stand-off weapons, like the LRASM, JASSM-ER and Tomahawk with an expanded, distributed stream of targeting data, increasing the tactical and strategic complexity faced by a potential adversary. 

For Australia’s future capability, the flexibility, survivability, and future-proofing capability built into the MQ-9B platform would expand and enhance the capability of the Australian Defence Force, even in a contested environment, something Ludwig explained, telling Defence Connect, “These aircraft are equipped with three radars, one air collision avoider, and two sensors, combined with COMINT, ELINT (SIGINT) capabilities, combined with that small UAS piece that can now come to the foreground to help in that contested airspace ... we have a lot of capability to fly in a contested airspace, everything from dual redundant SATCOM systems on the aircraft, we can use multiple bands. .. we have an EW SP (self-protection) pod that has the latest IR and radar protections and stand-off sensors, stand-off, small UAS capability, so when we talk about threat, there is no more threat than to an E-7 or a P-8, so we think we’re still highly credible in a contest environment.”

Critically, this combination of flexibility, survivability and future-proofed A2/AD-centric ISR and strike capabilities would prove invaluable to the Australian Defence Force — empowering the Australian Navy to provide a degree of fixed-wing naval aviation ISR and strike to deployed amphibious detachments, while providing the Air Force with the tactical flexibility to deploy across the austere parts of the Indo-Pacific and expand the strategic reach of capabilities like the Triton, P-8, and others. 

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