Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne sees the developmental Boeing Airpower Teaming drone as heralding a renaissance in Australian aerospace defence production.
“This is the first military aircraft Australia has invested in since the Boomerang in 1942 to 1945,” said Pyne, referring to a piston-engined fighter developed by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation.
“It is a red letter day and a A$40 million ($29 million) investment, which is significant, but more importantly it’s the decision by the government to invest in the capability here in Australia. Our own ingenuity, our own innovation, supporting Australian research and development.”
The new drone was designed near Brisbane. Should the programme eventually enter production, it will be produced in Australia, although Boeing has yet to state the location.
Pyne made the remarks after the unveiling of a mockup of the new drone at the Avalon air show. The 11.7m (38ft) long UAV resembles a small stealth fighter, with canted tails and engine intakes with diverterless supersonic inlets. Assembled journalists were not allowed to examine the mockup's’s tail or exhaust, which was draped in a sheet.
During a media briefing, air force and Boeing officials described pilots of the Lockheed Martin F-35A commanding teams of the drone during combat missions.
Pyne went further to add that the aircraft could accompany not just manned fighters, but operate with other valuable platforms such as the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and reconnaissance aircraft.
“It’s not just a protector for the F-35A, but can also be used with the Wedgetail, Poseidon, and other platforms. The concept is taking out enemy attacks on our much more expensive platforms. It’s designed to be a cheaper platform, a shield if you like, protecting our service men and women who might be on a Poseidon, Wedgetail, or F-35A.”
There is a growing consensus among defence analysts that a pillar of Chinese airpower doctrine is using long range fighters, such as the Chengdu J-20, to attack key support assets such as AEW&C aircraft and tankers.
“When a company like Boeing makes their biggest investment in unmanned aerial vehicles outside the United States in their corporate history, then it’s a very significant day for the air force, and for all those Australians who have dreamed of being part of a big project that makes a difference to our military capability and our industrial capability,” says Pyne.
Boeing declined to comment on its level of investment in the Australian drone, but says the project represents its largest overseas investment in an unmanned aircraft project. In addition, Boeing and the Australian government see export potential for the type.
“As with all concepts it may not come to fruition, but you have to be able to take a risk,” adds Pyne.