CANBERRA (Australia) – Australian air force personnel have commenced training on armed drones in the United States on the MQ-9 ’Reaper’ drone, Australian defense officials said on Monday, less than a week after Washington said it would begin exporting the controversial weapons system.
Australia is considering to buy armed American-made drones of the type used against insurgents in Afghanistan and Syria, announcing its military has already begun training to fly the weapons.
An Australian defense department spokeswoman told Reuters no decision had been taken, but the decision to send personnel to train on General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone is likely to be seen as a signal it is considering a purchase.
“Unmanned aerial systems are an advancing technology with a proven record of providing ‘eyes in the sky’ in the Middle East region,” Australian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, Darren Chester, said in a statement.
“It would be remiss of Australia not to continue to develop our knowledge of this technology to ensure we are able to gain the greatest benefit from unmanned aerial systems and the best protection for our troops on future operations.”
Air Marshal Geoff Brown, the head of Australia’s small but technologically-advanced Air Force—which already plans to re-equip with 58 F-35 stealth fighters costing more than 12 billion Australian dollars (US$9.41 billion)—said last year that he would like to acquire Reapers, manufactured by General Atomics.
Australia, a close U.S. military and political ally, last year said it was buying seven Northrop Grumman-manufactured MQ-4C Triton unarmed surveillance drones for its navy to work alongside a new fleet of eight P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, built by Boeing. The country has also sent warplanes to join the U.S. led coalition targeting Islamic State insurgents in Iraq, and was an original member of Western coalitions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where Australian troops joined U.S. and British counterparts.
General Atomics, which also makes the Predator drone, Northrop Grumman, Textron and other arms makers have been urging Washington for years to loosen strict export curbs, which they say have cost them orders to Israel and others in the growing market.
Britain is the only country now flying armed US drones, but France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones.
Buyers of military drones have to agree to strict conditions, such as sticking to international law and not using them for unlawful surveillance or crackdowns on citizens.