Australia has more important things to buy than MQ-9 drones
27 May 2021|

Let’s see if we can spot a contradiction here.

On 25 April, Defence Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC war with China over Taiwan could not be ruled out. He did not need to add that, if such a war broke out, Australia, alongside the US, would be fighting fearsome, high-technology enemy forces.

Two days before, the US State Department approved export to Australia of $2.1 billion worth of General Atomics MQ-9B drones—aircraft that are useful only against an enemy that doesn’t shoot back.

In other words, amid a high and rising Chinese threat to the peace of the Western Pacific, the government is preparing to buy costly equipment for another Middle East campaign.

Australia is not remotely prepared for a major war against a powerful enemy close to home. Critical improvements to national resilience are urgently needed: for example, improved abilities to repair air bases, supply them with fuel, disperse aircraft to civilian fields, fix aircraft battle damage, and clear sea mines. We also need more pilots.

Dutton should challenge the Department of Defence to explain why a single dollar should be spent on preparing to go back to the Middle East before these more pressing issues have been attended to.

MQ-9Bs would be just about useless in a war with China. These propeller-driven aircraft have worse flight performance than World War II fighters and are simply unsurvivable in the face of modern fighters and surface-to-air systems.

This is not because the MQ-9B is badly designed but, rather, because it is not intended for serious combat or anything like it. As the latest version of the MQ-9 Reaper, it’s tailor made for conducting surveillance of territory occupied by enemies who have only guns or, at most, low-level anti-aircraft missiles. It can also attack targets if they are similarly incapable of defending themselves.

In a war with China, by contrast, the most that MQ-9Bs could do would be to collect radio signals from a very safe distance, from which they might not collect much at all.

The prospective Australian order would cover up to 12 MQ-9Bs, according to the US. They would come with an impressively complete array of sensors, communications radios and targeting systems, plus equipment on the ground for control and training. Hardly any weapons are mentioned, and additional facilities in Australia will presumably needed, so the overall budget has to be bigger than $2.1 billion.

Altogether, this program would indeed produce an excellent force for supporting Australian soldiers on the ground in, say, Afghanistan.

But Australia is not obliged to turn up in such places with all the equipment it needs. As with attack helicopters, it could rely on allies, such as the US and UK, which have similar aircraft and would well understand that Australia was under far too much strategic stress to fully equip itself for secondary wars. That is to say, they would understand something that the Australian Department of Defence evidently does not.

The MQ-9B should be a doubly unwelcome addition to Australia’s military, because it will be another type added to the aircraft fleet, with consequent complications in support and training. The burdens of a new fleet would not arise if the money were spent instead on, for example, hardening air bases.

Nor would new burdens arise if the money were used to pay for more aircraft of a type already in service, deepening an important capability rather than adding a new one of low priority. Limiting the conversation to surveillance and intelligence, there are three types, in service or coming into service, for which more units would be highly valuable.

For $2.1 billion, Defence could probably buy:

  • Four or five Boeing E-7A Wedgetail air surveillance aircraft;
  • Seven Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrollers (with weapons); or
  • At least seven MC-55A Peregrine electromagnetic warfare aircraft from Gulfstream and L3Harris.

The budget would cover spare parts but would hardly need to pay for more infrastructure for any of these types, since that’s in place or coming. Support and crew costs might require more funding but would at least benefit from economies of scale by using existing training set-ups, for example. For supporting MQ-9Bs, just about everything would have to be new.

The MQ-9B would be even less attractive after 2031, probably only about six years after it becomes operational with Australia, because that’s when the US Air Force plans to begin replacing the Reaper with something more useful. Australian support costs will then begin to rise as interoperability advantages fade.

In the meantime, the USAF is upgrading the Reaper to make it useful in any war with Russia, especially by making it serve as a communications node. The MQ-9B already comes with a comms-node function, and that could be handy for defending Australia. But if that job is part of the requirement, it hasn’t been mentioned—and simpler drones could provide the service.

We must ask ourselves how this program to buy costly drones for Middle Eastern wars has persisted as the Chinese threat has galloped ahead.

The RAAF first mentioned its aim to acquire MQ-9s or something like them in 2014. Some might argue that the need to prioritise defence of Australia over expeditionary capability should already have been apparent. But, if it wasn’t then, it certainly was in the next few years as China moved closer to this continent by illegally building military bases in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the risk of war over Taiwan kept rising as China built its capacity to ward off US intervention. And meanwhile Canberra’s relations with Beijing have plummeted.

Amid all that, we seem to have had defence thinking running on rails. It seems that, since the drone program had got started, it’s just kept going, regardless of changing circumstances.

One must wonder why neither Marise Payne nor Christopher Pyne called a halt to this during their terms as defence minister between 2015 and 2019. In Linda Reynolds’s term, from 2019 to 2021, the program somehow survived a 2020 defence policy review that called for a focus on fighting closer to home.

Now Dutton is the minister, and reportedly resistant to being run by his department. Will he, too, stick by this low-priority waste of funds?