Australia will buy a fleet of small unmanned spy planes to monitor adjacent seas for foreign navy vessels, illegal fishing and people smuggling, the government in Canberra has announced.

The Turnbull government said today it had agreed to buy six Triton drones from US military company Northrop Grumman for A$7 billion (US$5.18 billion).

The long-range high-tech drones will be used to monitor activity in the South China Sea, well into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and down to the Antarctic if need be. But they are not expected to be put into operation for another five years.

Triton drone
Illustration: Northrop Grumman

Aside from detecting and monitoring foreign ships and submarines, the surveillance planes will also be able to watch for vessels involved in illegal fishing or people-smuggling.

The government Defense White Paper in 2016 proposed buying the Triton drones, but the cost has doubled in the two years since then, as a Greens senator noted in Canberra when the news was revealed.

“Only two years ago in its White Paper the government said that they would be acquiring seven drones at the cost of between $3 and $4 billion,” Senator Whish-Wilson told Parliament. “But two years later, they’re acquiring six of these Triton drones, so one less, for $7 billion. That’s a more than a 100% blowout in costs.”

The Triton drones, which do not carry weapons, can fly for 24 hours at an altitude of 18,000 meters and cover 44,000 square kilometers in that time.

The drones will be based at a Royal Australian Air Force base in South Australia. They will replace the RAAF’s fleet of aging P-3 Orions, which are due to be phased out, and will work alongside 12 new P-8 Poseidon manned surveillance planes.

Data gathered by the Triton drones will be shared with Australia’s closest allies – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.