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Tony Abbott Wants An Australian Billion-Dollar Drone Program, But Why? [Updated]

If I had $1 for every time Tony Abbott had said “stop the boats” in the last four years, I’d probably have enough cash to fund his latest proposal: he wants to buy seven UAV drones to scour the Australian coastline for illegal boat arrivals at a cost of $1.5 billion.

Image: Getty/Gizmodo

Note: this story originally ran in April 2013, but has now been updated to reflect the Coalition’s policy documents.

Abbott proposed the plan in the wake of the arrival of a boatload of 66 asylum seekers into Geraldton, Western Australia without being detected by Australian Customs or the Navy. A rather embarrassing affair for all involved, really.

The leader of the Opposition said that the plan would cost $1.5 billion and be operational by 2017-18.

“We do need unmanned aerial vehicles to ensure that we’ve got proper surveillance over the approaches to Australia. We have got a government which has essentially surrendered to the people smugglers on the task of border protection. We will fix this problem. We will make our borders safe again,” Abbott told SBS.

It’s worth noting that these probably won’t be the weaponised drones you see patrolling warzones in the Middle East, for example. This plan is about high-level border surveillance to augment the capacity of the Navy and the Customs Service.

Drones are already used around Australia’s coastline to look for illegal fishing boats in Australian waters, but this plan is far more expensive and expansive.

Tony Abbott today outed his Defence Policy documents [PDF], which included a very broad paragraph on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for border patrol.

4. Broad Area Maritime Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The Coalition’s Defence White Paper will closely consider the need for unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.

The acquisition of unmanned aerial vehicles will be dependent on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force and Service Chiefs, as well as a clear cost-benefit assessment that demonstrates the value of these aircraft.

We believe there is merit in acquiring new state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles ― such as the Triton or equivalent capability. Australia lost its pre-eminent position in the Triton programme and delivery schedule because of Labor’s ill thought-out decision in 2009 to delay this programme to 2022-23.

Unmanned aircraft have the speed, technology and endurance to conduct surveillance over Australia’s vast land and maritime jurisdictions. Typically, such aircraft are capable of surveying an area of around 40,000 square nautical miles per mission. This leading-edge technology has the potential to enhance protection of our maritime borders and extended
economic zones.

A decision on unmanned aerial vehicles can responsibly only be made from government.

Notably, the document is light on costings and exact drone numbers, but the Opposition Leader still sees the merit in using the drone tech to patrol Australia’s borders.


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