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Is America’s secretive ‘Great White Bat’ UAV the answer to Australia’s long-range strike malaise?

Artist concept image. Credit: AW&ST

It is no secret that Australia is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to delivering long-range firepower. With the Royal Australian Air Force at a distinct disadvantage to Army and Navy as planned in the DSR, does the RQ-180 – developed for the US Air Force – provide a more affordable solution to the B-21?

It is no secret that Australia is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to delivering long-range firepower. With the Royal Australian Air Force at a distinct disadvantage to Army and Navy as planned in the DSR, does the RQ-180 – developed for the US Air Force – provide a more affordable solution to the B-21?

At the heart of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review is an emphasis on tactical and strategic deterrence in a way that marks a significant departure from Australia’s traditional defence posture.

Underscoring this dramatic shift in national posture are the concepts of “impactful projection” and “national defence”, each forming the central delivery mechanisms of a broader conceptualisation of Australian deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, leading us into two specific comments.

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The first is from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles at the release of the Defence Strategic Review, where he explained the definition and theory of “impactful projection”, stating, “I think, increasingly, we’re going to need to think about our defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we’ve probably had before.”

This statement by the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister is further reinforced by a powerful statement in the Defence Strategic Review, which articulated, “Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher threat levels. In the present strategic circumstances, this can only be achieved by Australia working with the United States and other key partners in the maintenance of a favourable regional environment. Australia also needs to develop the capability to unilaterally deter any state from offensive military action against Australian forces or territory.”

In order to deliver on these two distinct, yet complementary approaches to contemporary deterrence in the Australian context, each of the branches of the Australian Defence Force are being fundamentally reshaped, yet the Royal Australian Air Force seems to be a little left out.

Where Army is set to benefit from the acquisition of HIMARS and current and planned evolutions of the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), Navy will utilise the nuclear-powered submarine fleet as the silent and arguably, deadliest arm of Australia’s long-range strike capabilities, with the Naval and Joint Strike Missiles and Tomahawks, respectively, for both Navy and Air Force.

However, the glaring gap of any real, survivable long-range strike capability for the Air Force is noticeable and continues to serve as a major capability gap since the retirement of the venerable F-111s in 2010, one we can’t afford to not mitigate or plug, particularly as our region becomes more dangerous.

Yet this is exactly what we appear to be doing when the DSR stated, “The review has undertaken detailed discussions in Australia and the United States in relation to the B-21 Raider as a potential capability option for Australia. In light of our strategic circumstances and the approach to Defence strategy and capability development outlined in this review, we do not consider the B-21 to be a suitable option for consideration for acquisition.”

With this in mind, do we have other options available to us worth considering?

Well, the simple answer is, yes. Luckily for us, the United States Air Force has been working secretly with a range of defence companies to develop large, complex uncrewed aerial vehicles designed to penetrate and survive in the heavily defended airspace of near-peer and peer competitors.

Shikaka to the rescue?

Front and centre of this development program is the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, known colloquially as the “Great White Bat”, or “Shikaka”, for those familiar with the 1990s Ace Ventura Pet Detective series of films.

No, I am not joking either.

It should be noted that the RQ-180 has been developed under the veil of immense secrecy by Northrop Grumman and has, as some have speculated, been responsible for the scrapping of a range of programs, including the joint US Navy and US Air Force Joint Unmanned Combat Systems program in 2005, the Next Generation Bomber in 2009, despite the development of the B-21 Raider under the Long Range Strike Bomber program.

Developed in secret to build upon the success of Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel, the Great White Bat has been designed to fill a niche role, largely in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance space in heavily defended airspace that platforms like the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-4C Triton are unable to enter and survive inside of.

In particular, complex integrated air defence networks like those operated by Russia, China, and Iran are where the RQ-180 is designed to operate with impunity, leveraging a combination of high-altitude and low-observable technologies developed for the B-21 Rider to survive in these advanced threat environments.

Persistence is another area in which the highly secretive aircraft excels, with reports stating that the RQ-180 is designed to operate for 24 hours with a range of at least 12,000 nautical miles, or 22,000 kilometres, providing new meaning to the term “reach out and touch somebody” and a dramatic improvement over the preceding RQ-170.

Avenues for co-development

While initially designed as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform, with some element of electronic attack capabilities, evolving the RQ-180 to become a lethal, strategic-level strike platform in partnership with the United States and the UK Royal Air Force would serve to establish an added layer to the allies’ deterrence capabilities.

Additionally, allied co-development would serve to spread the development costs while building critical economies of scale across the three partners at a time when we will be doing more together, not less.

This is particularly important as the US Global Strike Command’s bomber force of Cold War-era B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s is rapidly ageing with the B-21 Raider slated to replace the latter two aircraft, ultimately resulting in a cut to the Western alliance’s strategic bomber force.

This is exemplified by former US Air Force vice chief of staff, General (Ret’d) John Loh, who has identified the key challenges facing America’s declining bomber force as a result of ageing airframes, shrinking budgets, and the narrowing qualitative and quantitative gaps between American and peer/near-peer competitor platforms.

“America’s bomber force is now in crisis. In the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 budget request, one-third of the B-1 fleet is set for retirement, B-2 survivability, modernisation is cancelled and the new B-21 is at least a decade away from contributing significantly to the bomber force. The venerable B-52 requires new engines and other upgrades to be effective,” Loh explained, setting the scene.

“The number of bombers are at their lowest ever, but demand for bombers increases every year, particularly in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific. Bombers are the preferred weapon system there because of their long range and huge payload capacity,” Loh explained.

Given Australia has already crossed a major Rubicon through the planned acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines and Britain is already recognised as a “nuclear power” with a history of operating strategic bombers in the past, an evolution of Shikaka would significantly impact the capability of these nations to implement “impactful projection” and maintain deterrence doctrines from a conventional lens in the era of renewed great power competition.

Final thoughts

While Beijing has undoubtedly been the principal focus and driving force for Australia’s Defence Strategic Review and the nation’s pursuit of increasing self-reliance and strategic capacity to “deliver combat power through impactful materiel and enhanced strike capacity – including over longer distances”, this point becomes more important as the post-Second World War order and balance of power shifts away from a US-led and dominated, monopolar world, towards an increasingly multipolar world, driven by the domestic and international ambitions, anxieties, and interests of these rising powers.

I will go one further to this, how should Australia plan for a world that is no longer as benevolent as we have been used to for the past 80 years?

Simply put, how will emerging powers like Indonesia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and others treat Australia and our concerns when their respective economic, political, and strategic clout simply overshadows our own and the relative regional power of our primary strategic benefactor?

In the face of a rapidly evolving global and regional paradigm, Australia’s strategic capabilities will need to be more diverse, putting all our eggs in the single basket, in this instance, the nuclear-powered submarines, and we certainly shouldn’t be making such categorical statements, without leaving the door open for further consideration, particularly when we have failed to provide any additional material transformation or capability to the ADF.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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