The first military drone to be designed and built in Australia in more than 50 years will strengthen the country’s ability to counter China in the Pacific, a military analyst says.
The Loyal Wingman, developed by the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing, is set to be built in southern Queensland at the Wellcamp Aerospace and Defence Precinct near Toowoomba.
It is the first time Boeing will set up an assembly plant outside north America.
Defence analyst Dr Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the announcement was likely to anger China.
China was scathing after Australia, the US and the UK last week unveiled a new trilateral security partnership called AUKUS, labelling it an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional peace and stability.
Dr Davis said the Loyal Wingman and future models would play an important role in allowing Australia’s military to conduct long-range strikes.
He said that such capability had been lacking since 2010, after the retirement of the F-111 “Aardvark” from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Dr Davis said the RAAF’s current fighters, including the F-35 Lightning, lacked the range needed if there was a conflict with China.
“The Loyal Wingman, which has a much greater range than the F-35, can be evolved over time into a more capable platform that is larger, has greater payload, has greater range.
“You suddenly then have the ability to hold at-risk targets in places like the South China Sea, which is really critical in terms of building an anti-access and area-denial capability for Australia.”
The Loyal Wingman, which made its first flight in February, is roughly the size of a traditional jet fighter and has a range of 3,700 kilometres.
The drone is expected to be used in situations where it is considered risky to send crewed aircraft.
The project is still in its early stages, but Boeing said there had been interest from overseas.
“We’re seeing significant demand both locally and globally for this capability,” said Boeing Australia’s managing director Scott Carpendale.
Australia’s relationship with France has also soured after it dumped a $90 billion contract for French-designed submarines in favour of acquiring nuclear-powered boats under the AUKUS partnership.
The Prime Minister and Australian diplomats are trying to reassure South-East Asian nations over the deal.
But Dr Davis said the drone project could boost cooperation between Australia and allies such as Japan.
“It also gives us the ability to directly burden-share with allies and provide military capabilities to create key allies in the region,” he said.
Dr Davis said the project was also significant in helping Australia develop an industry not reliant on overseas supply chains.
“If we have a sovereign supply capability for these sorts of technologies, then it makes us much more resilient, particularly in the context of strategic competition … evolving into an actual shooting war,” he said.
The Department of Defence said the Loyal Wingman project was a vote of confidence in Australia’s aerospace industry.
The decision is expected to create more than 70 permanent jobs and 300 construction jobs on the Darling Downs.
Toowoomba Mayor Paul Antonio said the plant would add another important element to the region’s economy.
“It gives us a real opportunity to build this community in an even bigger way than we have been able to.”