Australia reverses decision on Schiebel Camcopters for naval UAVs
21st September 2023 - 02:14 GMT
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has cancelled its acquisition of Camcopter S-100 shipborne UAVs from Schiebel, which formed Project Sea 129 Phase 5 Block 1.
In typical fashion, the Department of Defence, which is increasingly paranoid about media engagement, has been tightlipped about the reversal. It only enigmatically said: ‘Sea 129 Phase 5 has not been discontinued. Defence is examining options for the future of Sea 129 Phase 5 as part of its holistic response to the [Defence Strategic Review].’
However, Shephard understands that partners Raytheon Australia and Schiebel were issued a cancellation notice around mid-June. Neil Hunter, Global Head of Business Development at Schiebel, commented to Shephard, ‘After the Defence Strategic Review, the decision was made to re-evaluate the overall surface combatant strategy for the RAN. Further official information from the RAN is expected.’
The single-source selection of the Camcopter S-100, rather than a competitive tender, had been approved by the previous government in April 2022, just before the national election. This decision had come as a surprise to Schiebel.
Officialdom called it progressive industry engagement, claiming the first UAVs should reach an initial operating capability by around mid-2024, some 18 months earlier than originally scheduled.
Shephard previously reported that Raytheon Australia was expecting a contract in early 2023. Obviously, this did not happen, and behind-the-scenes indecision over the future of Sea 129 Phase 5 and the Defence Strategic Review seem to be part of the reason.
Indeed, the whole negotiation process was bogged down. Hunter pointed out, ‘Of note, this opportunity was still at the tender stage and final negotiations had not commenced.’ So much for the 18-month time savings promised by the previous government. However, the fact was that the future of Sea 129 Phase 5 Block 1 was in jeopardy as soon as the new government was installed in May 2022. The Albanese administration announced early on that it was contemplating scrapping the deal.
The RAN is already operating six S-100 UAVs. Hunter noted: ‘Schiebel’s current contract with the Royal Australian Navy, which was awarded in late 2016 was not affected in any way by the decision of the Commonwealth to not continue the Sea 129-5 Block 1 tender. ‘The RAN currently has six Camcopter S-100 aircraft in operation, conducts regular deployments, and Schiebel is awaiting the start of the negotiations for a follow-on sustainment contract.’
The RAN had never settled on the number of aircraft to be procured for the 30-year Sea 129 Phase 5 programme that was worth up to A$1.3 billion ($960 million). Instead, eight capability bricks are required, each likely to consist of 2-3 aircraft, plus a handful more for training.
The S-100 had been selected ahead of competing platforms from Textron Systems, Insitu Pacific, BAE Systems and Leonardo.
A naval review undertaken subsequent to the Defence Strategic Review may clarify Sea 129’s future, but this seems to be another messy Australian procurement unnecessarily caught up in politics and indecisiveness.
In the meantime, Insitu Pacific has been making excellent progress with Project Land 129 Phase 3, where the RQ-21 Integrator will be operated by the Australian Army. Flight tests were completed in May, and the Brisbane-based company may scent an opportunity to capitalise with the RAN.
Shephard Defence Insight lists the following users of the Camcopter S-100: Australia, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE, the UK and the US.
Counting against Schiebel in the Australian acquisition may have been a sale of five S-100s to sanctioned Myanmar. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists a €87 million deal occurring in 2017-18. Furthermore, Schiebel cooperated with OAO Gorizont in Russia to deliver S-100-based UAVs for predominantly civil use, according to Schiebel's June 2011 press release. However, the Austrian company denied any culpability: ‘Schiebel has not sold any S-100 UAVs to the Russian military.
In the past, Schiebel has cooperated with a Russian company regarding civil applications for uncrewed aerial systems. Due to the current situation in the Ukraine, the cooperation was discontinued.’
The S-100 has also been spotted in Chinese service too. It is possible that China acquired 18 systems in 2010, perhaps for the China Coast Guard, although they have been spotted on Chinese frigates.
In other UAV news related to the Australian military, three domestic companies were awarded developmental UAV contracts in August.
Jabiru Aircraft, Crystalaid and Geodrones will develop cargo UAVs able to carry ammunition or rations to troops in ‘restricted terrain or high-risk environments’, as well as to conduct CASEVAC missions.
Jabiru Aircraft was selected for a medium-lift coaxial quadcopter that can lift a 50kg payload and carry it 150km. It will demonstrate its solution to the army in late 2024. Geodrones was selected for its hybrid-powered coaxial design in the heavy-lift category. This UAV will have a take-off weight of 3t, including a 1t payload, and can move cargo from ship to shore. With a 300km range, an army demonstration should occur in about 18 months.
Crystalaid was also selected in the same heavy-lift category. Its proposed design is turbine-powered and has eight rotors. It can lift more than 800kg, which could comprise containers or casualties. A smaller-scale demonstrator could be ready in about 15 months.