Australia’s defence minister David Johnston informed the media this month that he intends to recommend the purchase of seven MQ-4C Triton drones for the Australian military, at the cost of up to $3 billion.
The Triton has a wingspan of 39.8 metres, comparable to a Boeing 757. It is designed to stay airborne for up to 30 hours, flying at altitudes as high as 18,000 metres and at a speed of up to 575 kilometres per hour. With a range of 16,000 kilometres in a single flight, its intended purpose is long-range surveillance of vast areas, such as the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The US Navy claims that a Triton can monitor an area of close to seven million square kilometres in one operation.
The aircraft was put through a series of reportedly successful test flights in January by the US Navy, which has ordered 68 Tritons from manufacturer Northrop Grumman. Tritons are expected to go into operational use by the US Navy in 2017 and Australian acquisitions would be active by 2018 or 2019.
The purchase of Tritons was opposed in military circles in 2012, when longstanding plans to acquire drones were revived by the then Labor government. Critics at the time raised concerns over the fact that the aircraft is not designed to carry weapons, unlike the much cheaper Mariner drone, which is a modified version of the Predator used extensively for assassinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Mariner does not have the same range or flight time of the Triton, but can carry a payload of missiles, enabling it to be used to attack ships.
It’s about the Indian Ocean and securing sea lanes. In the Indian Ocean we see growing competition between the navies of China, India and the US. US attention is now pivoting toward this part of the world.
Over the following months, the preparations by the United States and its main Asia-Pacific allies—Japan and Australia—for a military confrontation with China have become increasingly public.
The military strategies for war with China all involve a naval blockade that prevents Chinese shipping using the main sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in particular the key Malacca, Lombok and Sunda Straits. Australian territory would be one of the main bases for naval and air operations. The objective would be to starve China of energy and raw materials and collapse its export-dependent economy. The US military’s AirSea Battle concept also includes unleashing air strikes and missile attacks on command and control and air defence systems on mainland China itself, and attacking the Chinese Navy if it attempted to break the blockade.
The US and Australian navies would require constantly updated information on the movement of commercial shipping from the Middle East and Africa across the Indian Ocean, as well as Chinese naval movements, in order to be able to intercept them.