Australia is to trial General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Mariner medium-altitude unmanned air vehicle and Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance UAV over its north- west shelf oilfields in 2005.

Defence minister Robert Hill says the trials will support Australia's proposed acquisition of an endurance intelligence and reconnaissance UAV system under its air force-led Project Air 7000.

The UAVs will operate from the Royal Australian Air Force's "bare base" at Learmonth in northern Western Australia for the trials, he says. However, Australian Department of Defence sources indicate the Global Hawk assessment may be conducted as part of the US Air Force's Pacific surveillance experiments planned for mid-2005, and missions could be launched from Guam.

The Mariner demonstrator is a modified Altair medium-altitude long-endurance UAV originally built for NASA. A proposed production version would use a modified MQ-9 Predator B airframe with larger wings and conformal fuel tanks.

Australia staged a series of operational trials of the RQ-4Ain 2001 from Edinburgh air base - now a regular staging and pre-deployment post for Global Hawks transiting from the continental USA to the Middle East to support US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Australian government has approved "technical discussions" on possible formal participation and industrial involvement in the US Navy's Multi-Mission Maritime aircraft (MMA) programme, says Hill. Recent air force experience in using the Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion for over-land surveillance in support of US forces in Iraq has provided a strong knowledge base to participate in the project, he says.

Source: Flight International