CANBERRA Rising Indian Ocean rivalries as China seeks to safeguard key energy lifelines loom behind an Australian push for a $3 billion fleet of maritime superdrones, which will likely boost intelligence sharing with the United States.
With elections looming and pressure for budget savings, the purchase of up to seven MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft has emerged as rare point of bipartisan agreement between Australia's Labor government and conservative opponents, but both sides are reluctant to discuss their wider strategic aims.
"There's not a lot of new money in our policy, (but) we are going into Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, the Triton," said conservative defense spokesman David Johnston, who is likely to become defense minister following the September 14 elections.
The Triton, under development by Northrop Grumman, is the size of a small airliner with a 40-metre wingspan. It can cruise at 20,000 meters for up to 30 hours, sweeping a distance greater than Sydney to London with 360-degree radar and sensors including infra-red and optical cameras.
Both the government and opposition say the world's most expensive and advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will be used mainly to combat asylum seekers arriving in fishing boats from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and which have become a hot political issue in Australia.
"But it is not about detecting leaky boats. You don't need to spend billions of dollars to do that. This is about maritime security and surveillance in the Indian Ocean," a senior Labor insider with close knowledge of defense planning said.
"This is a force multiplier. It's better to think of Triton as a mobile satellite we can steer around the Indian Ocean," said the source, who declined to be identified because of sensitivity around what will be an Asia-first military purchase.
The U.S. Navy is still testing the Triton and has plans to buy 68, with the first due in service in 2015. Several will be based at Guam, the key U.S. base in the western Pacific, as part of a repositioning of forces in the Asia-Pacific as China's strategic clout expands into the South China Sea and beyond.
Critics of the U.S. "pivot" have warned that sophisticated drone and UAV aircraft could be destabilizing as Asian militaries seek to modernize with new submarines, warships and aircraft, including Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter.
The Indian Ocean has become one of the world's most vital routes for energy and raw material supply, with over 80 percent of China's oil imports transiting through the area. Japan, India and South Korea are also dependent on Indian Ocean routes.
Australia's Labor government, under pressure to make cuts in Australia's $24 billion a year defense budget, has asked the United States for information on the Triton.
But Johnston said a conservative government in Australia, traditionally a close U.S. ally, had already decided on seven to help with border patrols.
"Triton has the endurance to go from Broome (on Australia's northwest coast) or Darwin to Sri Lanka, do a couple of laps, and then come home without stopping," he said.
Both sides are reluctant to mention Chinese ships and submarines as a target of Triton surveillance, as Beijing is Australia's largest trade partner and bristles about Western efforts to contain its growing strategic clout.
Andrew Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Canberra would be using Tritons for more than just border surveillance, and would push their security envelope well into the Indian Ocean.
One Triton, when complemented by Australia's intended purchase of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, can cover almost seven million square kilometers in one mission, twice the surface area of India.
"Tritons will be contributing to the military surveillance picture, and to the extent that Chinese military expansion is one of the things that needs to be kept an eye on, they will be doing that," said Davies.
He said the Tritons would effectively become the southern arm of a broad allied network that would see Canberra exchanging intelligence with the United States, which already rotates Marines and naval ships through northern Australia.
Johnston, whose conservatives have always favored the tightest possible U.S. alliance, said Australian Tritons would neutralize thoughts in Washington of Canberra's far-flung Cocos-Keeling islands being upgraded as a base for U.S. UAVs in the eastern Indian Ocean, just south of Indonesia.
"Darwin would be much more logical," he said.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)