Australia scraps MQ-9B SkyGuardian acquisition plans

The Australian Department of Defence (DoD) has scrapped its planned acquisition of at least 12 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian armed, medium-range, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) under Project AIR 7003.

Confirmation of the project’s cancellation was announced by Matt Yannopoulos, the associate secretary of the Australian DoD, when he informed the Australian Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on April 1. The scrapping of this planned MQ-9B purchase comes after the Australian government decided to prioritise and reallocate funds for Project REDSPICE (Resilience, Effects, Defence, Space, Intelligence, Cyber and Enablers), under which the Australian Signals Directorate will receive an AU$9.9bn investment over the next decade.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian in flight [GA-ASI]
The Australian government confirmed that it had cancelled its planned acquisition of between 12-16 MQ-9B SkyGuardian MALE UAVs under Project AIR 7003 on April 1, 2022. GA-ASI

In a statement (released on April 4), the Australian DoD said: “The Australian government has made the hard decision to prioritise resources in response to the complex and challenging strategic environment we face. While the MQ-9B SkyGuardian provides an excellent capability system, tough decisions are required to optimise the [Australian Defence Force (ADF)] force structure for the current strategic environment.”

It adds that Project REDSPICE will increase the “potency and resilience” of the Australian Signals Directorate, allowing it to “block sophisticated cyber-attacks” against Australia’s critical infrastructure, and strike back if needed. “It will also ensure Australia’s cyber and intelligence capabilities remain resilient to attack,” the DoD said.

Australia revealed on November 28, 2019, that it had selected GA-ASI’s MQ-9B to strengthen the nation’s armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities across the land and maritime domains under Project AIR 7003. The total deal was valued at AU$1.3bn (US$880m) and included between 12-16 MQ-9Bs, along with related equipment and services. The US State Department approved the possible Foreign Military Sale of 12 ‘weapons-ready’ SkyGuardians to the Australian government on April 23, 2021.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian in flight [GA-ASI]
Designed for persistent combat ISR operations, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian is fitted with GA-ASI's Lynx Multi-Mode Radar, an advanced electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor and boasts an endurance of up to 40 hours in a manner of different weather conditions. GA-ASI

In response to the scrapping of Project AIR 7003, David R Alexander – president of GA-ASI – said: “Project AIR 7003 was expected to provide the [ADF] with a reliable and desperately needed capability…

“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,” he added.

Although the MQ-9B acquisition under Project AIR 7003 has now been scrapped, the Australian DoD has stated that its other aircraft procurement programmes remain unaffected. “Defence continues to progress multiple strike and [ISR] capabilities, such as MQ-4C Triton and MC-55A Peregrine aircraft, Apache helicopters, MQ-28A Ghost Bat and alternative long-range precision strike options.”