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Australia Drops ‘Controversial’ Marine Drone Deal

The Australian government has scrapped a major maritime drone deal with Schiebel the previous government approved.

Schiebel representative Neil Hunter told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the negotiations to supply S-100 Camcopter to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are finished.

“After the Defence Strategic Review, the decision was made to re-evaluate the overall surface combatants strategy for the RAN. Further official information from the RAN is expected,” he added.

The Australian Defence Department has yet to confirm the development, saying that the Sea129 Phase 5 project, under which the deal was made, has not been discontinued.

“Defence is examining options for the future of SEA129 Phase 5 as part of its holistic response to the [Defence Strategic Review],” the outlet quoted a defense spokesperson as saying.

$833 Million Drone Deal

Schiebel was chosen to provide dozens of reconnaissance drones to the RAN for 1.3 billion Australian dollars ($833 million) in May 2022.

The Austrian firm has delivered the drone to Russia and China. 

It has also been accused by human rights groups of supplying the drone to Myanmar, in an apparent breach of EU sanctions.

‘Controversial’ Decision

Moreso, the decision was taken just days before the Liberal Party government entered “caretaker” mode when, conventionally, governments refrain from making major decisions.

The Scott Morisson government picked the joint bid from Schiebel and Raytheon for the project’s Block 1 phase out of a total of five contenders, including Textron, Insitu Pacific, BAE Systems, and Leonardo.

To speed up the acquisition, the sole source bid was approved without an open tender.

Multi-Block Program

One of the arguments given in favor of S-100 was that it would achieve initial operational capability (IOC) 18 months earlier than other competitors as six of the drones have already been in service with the navy since 2016.

The drone was expected to achieve IOC in six months.

Three blocks of the S-100 were planned for procurement under the program over the next three decades, with each successive block providing greater capability than its predecessor.

The first block would run from 2023 to 2028, providing maritime unmanned aircraft systems capability to eight Anzac-class frigates and 12 Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessels.

Block two envisaged the drone’s deployment on nine future Hunter-class frigates and other ships from 2029 to 2033. 

Govt Accused of Delaying Military Decisions

The opposition criticized the decision, accusing the government of “delaying crucial military projects and reducing spending,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

“I think it’s contemptible really and I think the morale at the moment within the Defence Force, the men and women who are shaking their heads at the Albanese government, will be just further bewildered by a Prime Minister who says one thing and does completely the opposite,” the outlet quoted opposition leader Peter Dutton as saying.

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