Acquisition of the MQ-9 SkyGuardian system by Australia: continuation of the American “pivot” strategy or affirmation of the country’s regional aims?

Since 2016, Australia has pursued the most proactive rearmament policy of Western countries. Considered as the permanent American “aircraft carrier” in the South Pacific, Australia seems to want to pursue a policy of strategic empowerment of its armed forces, like Japan, without neglecting its alliance with the United States. This policy involves the affirmation of its air and information power materialized by the choice, in recent days, of the MQ-9B drone

In order to understand the scope of this acquisition, it is important to understand its place in the whole of Australian rearmament and consequently to understand the geostrategic environment of the country and the perception that the Australian state has of it. This environment is complex and strongly marked by the notion of “co-opetition”, characteristic of the international situation but accentuating the risks for a country in Australia's position. A state with continental dimensions but fragile demographics (23 million inhabitants), Australia is at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific zone and positions itself as one of its locks between Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. . It is therefore a key military- and cultural- ally for the United States. On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that Australia only positions itself strategically from an Anglo-Saxon perspective.

The Royal Australian Navy's AEGIS air defense destroyer HMAS Hobart Defense Analysis | Australia | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
The Royal Australian Navy has received its first Hobart-class Aegis destroyers to provide air and missile defense for the island.

This is precisely what the “ Defense White Paper », equivalent to our White Paper, published in 2016. Australia approaches its military tool in three circles: the defense of its territory, the defense of its regional interests and the affirmation of its alliance with the United States. Concerning the defense of its territory, Australia intends to control its approaches via imposing means of surveillance and maritime patrol. However, the critical size of its territory despite very concentrated population areas forces them to plan to take the decision to land via a “Limes” type defense, thus giving pride of place to air-land action. Regionally, Australia understands that its former “preponderance” is threatened. China, notwithstanding worrying Canberra in the South China Sea, has for 10 years made a breakthrough of influence in the Melanesian republics, previously privileged spheres of influence of Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, emerging Indonesia, overwhelming demographically, is also a threat to Australia through its regional desires. THE " Defense White Paper » designates it in a barely concealed manner, emphasizing the importance of the partnerships that Canberra maintains with Papua New Guinea as well as East Timor.

This understanding of its regional interests justifies acquisitions of strategic ISR resources, the strengthening of its land forces as well as the desire to equip itself with amphibious capabilities and therefore force projection. A projection which would be based on increasing the country's space – and space defense – as well as intelligence capabilities. In any case it seems that it is purely and simply a matter of providing the country with a C4ISTAR system for expeditionary purposes. Finally, the affirmation of the alliance with the United States is neither surprising nor contradictory. The latter form an advantageous umbrella for an Australia that is relatively isolated and in the process of rearmament. Better still, this rearmament also plays into the hands of the Pentagon, which needs to have interoperable framework allies that are autonomous in operation. Unlike the majority of pro-NATO European countries which sometimes seem to anticipate American will in terms of military vassalization.

The financial effort is there. The government is expected to increase the budget allocated to the armed forces by bringing it to 2% of GDP by 2021 and $195 billion over 10 years. In relative values ​​and compared to the Australian population, this is an effort three times greater than that of France. Enough to modernize and increase, essentially since 2014, the capabilities of each of the strategic functions mentioned: nearly a thousand Thalès armored vehicles hawkei for the Australian Army, MQ4 strategic maritime ISR drones Triton, a dozen Naval Group submarines Barracuda with conventional propulsion but also the recent modernization of its amphibious capabilities with the acquisition of two LHDs of the class Canberra at 27,500 tonnes of draft capable of transporting an Infantry battalion, 110 vehicles and around twenty helicopters. Finally, the Australian Navy wishes to eventually acquire other vectors: nine BAE System frigates, Hobart class AA destroyers, mine warfare ships, etc. All the vectors acquired here have the characteristic of being sized and designed for defensive or limited projection operations. De facto, they seem to be in line with Australia's “Indo-Pacific” regional security and influence aims (particularly East Asia and South Pacific) as well as with the “Indo-Pacific” strategy. containment " American against China.

GA MQ9B Skygadian Defense Analysis | Australia | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
Sle MQ-9B Skygardian from General Atomics is an improved version of the MALE Reaper drone

The most recent acquisition, MQ9 B SkyGuardian, sixteen vectors for entry into service in 2023, constitute at this stage the most symbolic stage of this rearmament effort. Because they transcend all of Australia's unique strategic capabilities and needs. Furthermore, they are the marker of Western military power by bringing together the two main items that characterize it: info-valorization and control of the operational tempo. A strategic drone of the range of the MQ 9 B is also synonymous with the passage of an advanced and therefore sovereign technological and organizational level. Indeed, the establishment of drone orbits requires the mastery of spatial capabilities for vector control as well as the management of its data flows – up and down – which are very bandwidth intensive. Data requiring processing, fusion and dissemination centers. And finally, inclusion within command and control architectures necessary to support the forces…. Capacities that very few countries are able to provide.

Le SkyGuardian is a modernized and more flexible version than the “Reaper”. With its 42 hours of flight, it is able to increase the endurance of its orbits, made up of several drones, facilitating de facto the acquisition of the permanence of ISR functions. For these purposes, it has EO/IR sensors, a Linx multi-mode radar with a range of more than 80km ( , Dynamic Targeting…), it can also quickly switch to mode SeaGuardian with the addition of a dedicated maritime surveillance radar. Little is known about the control or use of other effectors/sensors. Another important specificity, Australia has placed an order for an armed version, capable of delivering precision guided munitions (Laser or GPS). This is not trivial, in addition to the length, permanence and endurance necessary for ISR missions, the addition of ammunition rails allows the drone to position itself throughout the entire OODA decision-making loop by making it more fluid: opportunity targeting, air-ground fire support, increased responsiveness of deployed forces…. A MALE drone is an essential building block for any nation wishing to equip itself with a strategic and tactical intelligence tool while being able to quickly deal with targets. This helps to accelerate the operational tempo until the adversary is saturated. Furthermore, Australia seems to have taken stock of the increase in the proliferation of A2AD capabilities, to which strategic drones and their operational environment (satellites, theater ground stations, etc.) are particularly vulnerable. Whether it is ROIM, GEOINT, information development or collaborative combat, the MALE drone is a tool that is difficult to circumvent, especially in future semi- or even non-permissive Indo-Pacific theaters. This combined with the strengthening of its combat air fleet and the modernization of its land and maritime forces, Australia seems to want to become a military power that will now have to be reckoned with.

EA18G Growler Defense Analysis | Australia | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
Australia has ordered Growler electronic warfare aircraft to carry out jamming and combat missions against enemy anti-aircraft defense.

Despite this voluntarism, Australia will however have to face the same challenges that hit Western armies hard: electronic warfare, SEAD capabilities, use of AI, massification of its troops, etc. If the tone of its rearmament calls for strong acuity in this direction, Canberra must on the other hand face a recruitment crisis which affects most Western countries to varying degrees (Norway, Sweden, Germany, etc.). The weak demographic pool, the lack of salary attractiveness of military careers in countries that are nevertheless prosperous and the weakening of the spirit of defense are all ills hitting Australia hard. The fact remains that Canberra's military voluntarism should be taken as an example by all European states whatever their degree of Atlanticism. This nation is strongly linked to the USA in the military domain: “ Anzus "," Five Eyes »…. A situation that is all the more understandable as its strategic vulnerability is very real in the medium term. This is no longer really the case in Europe, which has a clear tendency to adopt the strategic fantasies of the American Neo-Conservatives.

However, this Australian “vulnerability” does not prevent it from pursuing, as we have seen, a military policy directly adapted to its regional needs and the defense of its territory. Even in the diversification of Canberra's defense acquisitions, which seems to be careful not to buy exclusively from America and wishes to ultimately develop its BITD. The sales volume with France via Thalès and Naval Group bears witness to this. We could interpret it as a desire for rapprochement with the last European country present in the South Pacific and long criticized for its “neo-colonialism” in New Caledonia. The situation has changed and France now has a real lever of influence in a region which could become critical in the future in terms of territorial integrity - China having aims in Nouméa - but also via the increase in exchanges in the Asia-Pacific-Latin America axis. Australia's posture then seems very balanced and consistent with its power interests. We are a thousand miles from a Polish or German Atlanticist tropism. Or France's declaratory effects on strategic autonomy but little followed by action.

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