Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) document has ruled out any acquisition of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider bomber, as it calls for continued work on the Boeing MQ-28A Ghost Bat unmanned combat aircraft.
The DSR was implemented by prime minister Anthony Albanese’s government to full assess the country’s defence posture in light of the more challenging strategic environment, primarily caused by China’s rapid arms build-up. The DSR was created in both classified and unclassified versions.
“A large-scale conventional and non-conventional military build-up without strategic reassurance is contributing to the most challenging circumstances in our region for decades,” says the unclassified version of the DSR.
“Combined with rising tensions and reduced warning time for conflict, the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising.”
The review calls on Australia to develop an anti-access/area denial capability, allowing it to hold potential rivals at risk well before they can approach the Australian mainland – the review specifies the importance of the country’s northern regions.
The document reveals that “detailed discussions” took place between Canberra and Washington DC about the developmental B-21.
“In light of our strategic circumstances and the approach to defence strategy and capability development outlined in this Review, we do not consider the B-21 to be a suitable option for consideration for acquisition,” says the DSR.
It offers no further details on why Canberra would not pursue a B-21 acquisition. Given Canberra’s long-range strike requirements, some observers have made the contention that the B-21 would be a good fit for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
The DSR stresses the continued importance of the MQ-28A, the first combat aircraft developed in Australia since the Second World War.
“MQ-28A Ghost Bat is a sovereign autonomous air vehicle designed to operate as part of an integrated system of crewed and uncrewed aircraft and space-based capabilities. MQ-28A is intended to be an attritable platform, which costs less than a crewed platform, and can be replaced rapidly,” says the DSR.
“This programme should be a priority for collaborative development with the United States.”
The DSR adds that the RAAF’s Lockheed Martin F-35As and Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets must be able to operate the Lockheed AGM-158C LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile). In addition, the F-35A will need to be able to operate the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile (JSM), which will require Australian F-35As to be upgraded to the fighter’s Block 4 configuration.
Canberra has long emphasised the importance of equipping its F-35As with the JSM. In 2015, Australia and Norway entered an agreement to collaborate on the JSM for the F-35. As for LRASM, in February 2022 Lockheed secured a contract to integrate the weapon with Australian Super Hornets.
The DSR also calls on the RAAF to boost it training capabilities. It specifically calls for more Boeing P-8A air crew, which will offer this fleet a higher operating tempo. The RAAF operates 12 737-derived P-8As in the maritime patrol mission.