The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will continue operating two Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) until the service receives MQ-4C Tritons from the U.S. The RAAF will use the medium-altitude, long-endurance Herons for training as well as for efforts to integrate unmanned aircraft into Australian airspace, the Department of Defense said.
Under an effort called Project Nankeen, Australia awarded MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), of Richmond, BC, Canada, a contract in 2009 to provide surveillance services in Afghanistan using the Heron. RAAF and Australian Army personnel trained on the UAS in Canada and were absorbed into that country’s Heron detachment at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, supporting the International Security Assistance Force.
In an announcement on October 28, defense minister David Johnston said Australia will continue using the Heron once a second aircraft returns from Afghanistan. One Heron already operates in restricted military airspace at Woomera for training purposes. The operations will be expanded over time from Woomera to other defense and civilian airfields, as required, he said.
“The retention of the Heron following their withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year will ensure Australia remains at the forefront of this advancing technology,” Johnston said. “This is prudent planning for possible future defense scenarios.”
In March, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia will acquire the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, a maritime derivative of the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk, to operate alongside the eight Boeing P-8A Poseidons it plans to purchase. Australia may acquire up to seven Tritons, which it will station at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia.
The defense department estimates the cost of operating the Heron over six years at AUD$120 million ($104 million), which includes portable ground control stations, maintenance, logistics, training and renovations to facilities at RAAF Base Amberley. The cost “will be funded from within the existing Air Force budget, through a redistribution of tasks and priorities,” the department said.
MDA announced on October 28 that it has received a CAD $40 million ($35 million) contract amendment from Australia to continue providing services through December 2017, with options for up to three additional years.