The military cooperation between Australia and the UK dates back decades. With the emergence of non-state actors in the Middle East, a potent military threat in the form of China, and a more polarized world order, the military partnership has grown significantly.
In the fall of 2020, reports had indicated that Australian Air force pilots and private contractors had been recruited to help fly UK armed Reaper drones over Syria and Iraq due to a scarcity of British Royal Air Force manpower and concerns about the stress of piloting lethal unmanned aircraft.
In a fresh development, for the first time, Australia’s Department of Defense acknowledged that Australian pilots are deployed to the United Kingdom on a “covert mission” to remotely fly British armed drones, including destructive flights over the Middle East, ABC News has reported.
The department revealed that 32 ADF members are currently embedded with “unmanned aerial system units” in the United Kingdom, while one operating in the United States, in response to a Freedom of Information request. The exact nature of their deployment, however, remains unknown.
The UK’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s 2020 annual report made the first public announcement that Australians were flying armed drones for the RAF.
According to the IPA, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot recruitment was assisting the RAF in addressing a personnel deficit, which military observers blamed on the psychological trauma of flying dangerous unmanned aircraft.
“A steady increase in overall Reaper Force crew numbers has also improved confidence,” the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority had noted. “This has been brought about by improved retention; Royal Australian Air Force exchange officers; and a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force personnel at the deployed location.”
Hundreds of ADF exchange troops are also apparently assisting the British military with the transfer to the new MQ-9B Protector drone, which will eventually replace the Reaper fleet of the Royal Air Force.
“A steady increase in overall Reaper Force crew numbers has also improved confidence: this has been brought about by improved retention; Royal Australian Air Force exchange officers; and a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force personnel at the deployed location,” the IPA noted two years ago.
Earlier, the announcement of RAAF crew recruitment for flying manned British UAVs was to follow a planned increase in operational capacity through 2024, when Britain’s fleet is to grow from nine Reapers to sixteen Protectors for £1.1 billion ($1.437 billion).
On their part, the Australian soldiers are eager to obtain experience flying the Reaper, which was chosen ahead of the Sky Guardian for introduction as part of Air 7003 in Australia, according to Australian Aviation.
Australian-British Partnership Going Strong
Australia had planned to deploy the MQ-9B armed drone under the Sky Guardian program until recently, but the $1.3 billion projects was shelved ahead of this year’s federal budget.
The cancellation of the AIR 7003 Phase 1 project, a $1.3 billion program to deliver General Atomics-built MQ-9B Sky Guardians to the RAAF, was revealed by Matt Yannopoulos, associate secretary of the Department of Defense, to the Senate foreign affairs, defense, and trade legislation committee earlier this month.
The MQ-9B Sky Guardian is an armed Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Remotely Piloted Aircraft System was to deliver persistent aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, and precision strike capability.
Instead, the Australian government has decided to reallocate funds for Project REDSPICE (Resilience, Effects, Defence, Space, Intelligence, Cyber, and Enablers) which is a $9.9 billion investment over the next decade in the Australian Signals Directorate.
Project REDSPICE is the largest investment in the capabilities of @ASDGovAu & will create over 1,900 new jobs. REDSPICE will substantially increase ASD's offensive cyber capabilities, its ability to detect and respond to cyber-attacks & introduce new intelligence capabilities. pic.twitter.com/kWJm5Ewhgb
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) March 29, 2022
The RAAF thought having Australian pilots fly British MQ-9A Reaper drones to be important training, but the arrangement’s future is now uncertain.
The defense has so far refused to comment on the implications of the SkyGuardian project’s cancellation on the pilot exchange program with the Royal Air Force, but the ABC said that it had learned that the department is assessing its future.
In 2015, it was revealed that two of Australia’s most notorious terrorists, Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, were killed in Iraq by drone strikes while fighting the Islamic State. As Australia goes to elections next month, the Labor party has said that it would revive the drone project if it comes to power.
In the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Reaper drones have fired a quarter of all missiles and accounted for over half of all mission hours flown, indicating the demands imposed on crews, said a previous report of The Guardian.
While the Reapers opened an area of interoperability and cooperation, the military relationship between the two states has matured several times since.
The United Kingdom and Australia are approaching a natural defense industrial fit that hasn’t always existed. Both are building the same frigate class, which was designed by the British. Both fly F-35 fighter jets, and P8 patrol planes, and would soon even fly the E7 surveillance planes.
On relatively tight budgets, both are attempting to establish more sovereign space capabilities to support the US.
After the signing of the AUKUS agreement, the UK along with the US is assisting Australia with the construction of nuclear submarines to counter China in the Pacific. If the Sky Guardian program is revived in the future, the training received by the RAAF pilots on the drones would give Canberra enhanced military muscle against China in the Pacific.