Australia’s Defense Ministry recently stated that it would “carefully” review a billion-dollar purchase of reconnaissance drones from its previous minister, which has sparked widespread concern given that China and Russia have also used it—the West’s two main adversaries. Not to mention that the Austrian manufacturer of the spy drone, Schiebel, has been accused by human rights groups of supplying its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Myanmar’s junta government in apparent violation of European Union sanctions.
A Controversial Contract
Last week, current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated that the controversial decision to award Schiebel the sole-source contract for the maritime Project SEA 129 Phase 5 would be thoroughly investigated. The previous administration allegedly hand-picked the Austrian company, subsequently scrapping its initial competitive evaluation process, in which rival American and British bids participated.
The US defense giant Raytheon has been appointed the “prime system integrator” for the maritime unmanned aerial system (UAS) program. Raytheon Australia would be responsible for “scrutinizing and approving” the appropriate level of protection of its S-100 Camcopter system.
Despite contract details being held, the deal between Schiebel and the Australian Defense Department has been estimated to be over $1 billion.
The Defense Department denied the billion-dollar contract on the first week of May, just days before the Albanese assumed office, saying that the price and the number of S-100 Camcopters to be purchased had yet to be determined. Its decision to choose Schiebel seems to be attributed to the short production timeline it offered, the then-spokesperson explained, claiming that it “could achieve initial operating capability (IOC) eighteen months ahead of schedule.”
Addressing security concerns, the spokesperson said that the department had done its “due diligence background checks” and noted that even though the platform is being operated in China and Russia, it has also been used by over sixteen international maritime organizations across the globe.
While the Camcopter controversy raised valid alarming bells for the Australian defense, according to news reports, the issue is not the first for the new administration to clean up related to the former defense minister. Barely a month after Albanese assumed office, the former official was revealed to have forged a Nuclear Submarine project under the AUKUS agreement, including the arms deal of American Virginia-class submarines and building eight more to increase the total strength to ten by 2030.
Moreover, the previous administration had strained its relationship with France, with the latter accused of “blatant lies.” Fortunately, the succeeding Canberra leader manages to reset the ties.
Schiebel’s S-100 Camcopter
The development of the Austrian-made remote rotorcraft drone began in the early-to-mid 2000s and was sold for both military and civilian use. Unlike most UAVs, the S-100 Camcopter takes off via Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL), thus eliminating long preparation time or needing to build a supported launch or recovery equipment. It can operate day and night missions in all kinds of weather within 200 km of the ground or hovering above waters.
It has an overall measurement of 3.11 m in length, 1.24 m in width, and 1.12 m in height, with an empty weight of 110 kg. The S-100 is outfitted with the default Austro Engine AE50R Wankel engine, 41 kW (55 hp), or the Schiebel heavy fuel engine as an alternative that allows up to six hours of operation and a maximum speed of 190 km/h. In addition, operators can choose between automatic navigation via pre-programmed GPS waypoints or manual/direct pilot control, which can be performed through a simple point-and-click graphical user interface.
High-definition payload imagery capable of real-time transmission is one of its impressive features, as is “fly-by-wire” technology controlled by redundant flight computers for a more complicated mission, and carbon fiber and titanium fuselage that allows for a wide range of payload (such as electro-optics and infrared sensors) and endurance.
Schiebel landed its first contract with the United Arab Emirates Army and three undisclosed nations, totaling its first batch of orders of around 200. In October 2007, the S-100 underwent sea trials aboard the Indian Navy’s INS Sujata (P25), followed by another flight test on the deck of the Pakistan Navy’s Type 21 frigate in March 2008. A month later, additional tests were carried out aboard the Spanish Guardia Civil vessel Rio Mio off the coast of Gran Canaria.
Various military navies conducted trials with the Camcopter proving its effectiveness and reliability in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions, even the United States Navy held in August of last year.
Schiebel addressed security concerns in May, claiming that its trading ties with Russia were established nearly seven years ago for civilian purposes, while it hasn’t done business with China since early 2015. It also stated that the Russian civilian client was not granted access to sensitive information or intellectual property, assuring the company’s other international clients that the S-100 platform is tightly-secured.