A fleet of armed, remotely-piloted aircraft will be deployed by the Australian Defence Force for the first time.
The MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics, will provide firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to a range of missions, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne announced on Friday.
It will also be used to protect land forces and assist search and rescue, humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
Mr Pyne said remotely-piloted aircraft will improve the safety of ADF personnel.
“It’s a significant step up if you don’t have to put air crew up into the air… in weaponised aircraft, which obviously is a target,” he said.
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“We want to give them the best platforms, the best equipment to win when they’re in a position where they have to win.”
The MQ-9 Reaper flies at medium altitude and can spend up to 40 hours in the air.
US-based General Atomics has partnered with local information and communications technology companies to support the acquisition.
General Atomics vice president Joe Song, who attended Friday’s announcement, said similar aircraft have been used in the US since the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“It’s been instrumental in protecting the troops in the Middle East… the number one thing that US troops appreciate is protection from above,” he said.
“They rarely go anywhere without having a situational awareness from the sky.”
He said the aircraft, which have also been supplied to the United Kingdom, take about 24 months to construct.
Minister Pyne said the government would buy between 12 and 16 at a cost of up to $2 billion, depending on negotiations with General Atomics.
He said no final decision had been made on where the fleet would be based but the operational aircrew would be located at the Edinburgh RAAF base, north of Adelaide.
The first aircraft are due to arrive in 2021 and could be in the air by 2022.