Australia plan for drones to patrol borders: report

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia plans to buy seven giant unmanned drones for AU$3 billion (S$3.4 billion), potentially to help patrol its borders, a report said on Saturday.

The unmanned aircraft, with the wingspan of a 737 passenger jet, would primarily be used by the military for spotting enemy ships and planes in a conflict.

But they could also be deployed to detect illegal fishermen and asylum-seekers, who frequently enter Australian waters on rickety boats, usually setting sail from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, The Australian newspaper said.

The military are already heavily involved in the conservative government's ongoing Operation Sovereign Borders policy, which is turning back asylum-seeker boats when safe to do so, a move that has angered Jakarta.

Defence Minister David Johnston would soon recommend to cabinet that it pass first approval to purchase the seven US-made MQ-4C Triton drones, which can patrol 40,000 square nautical miles in a single mission, the report said.

"As a maritime nation, a capability with this type of coverage must have our attention," Mr Johnston was quoted as saying.

"Accordingly, this government is interested in exploring cost-effective ways of re-engaging with this particular programme and possibly bringing it back on board."

The use of large unmanned aircraft patrolling the nation's borders has been mulled for a decade but the previous Labor government would not sign off on the concept as it reportedly believed the technology was not mature enough.

The drones, if deployed over the next few years, would replace Australia's current ageing fleet of P-3 Orion surveillance planes.

Halting the flood of asylum-seeker boats arriving in Australia's north has been a key policy of the Tony Abbott-led government since it was elected last year.

Its hardline stance on people-smuggling has proved successful, with no boats arriving for nearly two months.

But it has been received coolly in Jakarta, with tensions flaring last month when Australian ships made several inadvertent intrusions into Indonesian waters.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died attempting to make the perilous voyage from Indonesia to Australia on rickety and overcrowded fishing boats.

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