The drones are coming — to Adelaide.

The Royal Australian Air Force is expected to base a fleet of military drones at Edinburgh in Adelaide, using them to patrol Australia’s coast for asylum seeker boats. The drone fleet is likely to be made up of nine Northrop Grumman Triton drones (pictured), which have a 39.9 meter wingspan, can stay aloft for 30 hours and fly around 16,000 kilometres without needing to refuel.

The drones, roughly the same size as a Boeing 737, are expected to be in place by 2020, but significant logistical work is expected to occur well before then to prepare the base. It’s understood South Australian Minister for Defence Industries Jack Snelling was in Palmdale, California last month alongside representatives from defence contractors to talk to Northrop about the specifics of basing the Triton at Edinburgh.

South Australian Defence Teaming Centre CEO Chris Burns, who travelled with Snelling’s tour, told InDaily the drones would replace the Orion aircraft which already operate from Edinburgh.

“The key driver will be the replacement of the Orion aircraft at RAAF base Edinburgh. There’s a fleet of 19 of those. They’ll replace that fleet, but about 50% of the replacements will be manned aircraft. The other half of the fleet will be an unmanned aerial vehicle. So you’re talking seven to nine unmanned aerial vehicles,” he said.

“They will be based here at RAAF base Edinburgh. That’s the indication; there’s no confirmation yet. Because they haven’t decided what aircraft they’re going to get yet. But every indication we have is that the larger unmanned aircraft will replace the P3-Orions and be based out here at RAAF base Edinburgh.”

Last year the ABC revealed details of the drone program, which is being driven by senior commanders in the RAAF and is expected to cost around $3 billion. Burns says Edinburgh has been chosen because it’s centrally located and Australia’s maritime surveillance teams are already based there.

“That’s where the expertise is in the maritime surveillance and patrol. That’s why the P3s are here … They can go east, west, south and north. They can deploy a drone out of Edinburgh, and it could touch down briefly in Darwin to refuel before it went on to do a task in the North West shelf,” he said.

Edinburgh has already been used by the US to run several Global Hawke missions. The facility has a runway capable of handling the large Tritons. And local advanced manufacturing capacity could easily be adapted to service the drone fleet, Burns says.

The Orion fleet currently patrols Australia’s maritime borders. In service since 1968, the ageing airframes are due for retirement in 2019. Defence’s program to replace them — called Air7000 — includes a fleet of drones that can patrol land, sea and the electronic spectrum.

Drones are better equipped for the “boring” work of watching for asylum seeker boats, Burns says. “They’ve got 30 hours of endurance. So they can go up off the north-west shelf and patrol the oil rigs, they can assist with the same things that P3-Orions are doing at the moment with illegal boats,” he said.

“It’s very expensive to put a manned aircraft up in the sky just flying around in circles or figures-of-eight looking for boats. So you use the unmanned aircraft to do the boring long 30-hours endurance just doing figures-of-eight in the sky looking for stuff. Then the moment the unmanned aircraft detects something you respond with a manned aircraft.”

Another participant on Snelling’s Californian drone tour, Defense SA CEO Andrew Fletcher, was told the drones could be used for more than spotting asylum seeker boats.

“They just hoover up bucket loads of information from 60,000 feet,” he said. “Anything that’s broadcast — anything from radio messages, mobile phones, all the secret stuff that the military use from various countries, anything. It can gather any information that’s in the airwaves.”

*This article was originally published at InDaily

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey