'The Australian Defence Force is quietly resurrecting plans to buy seven huge intelligence and surveillance drones that could cost up to $3 billion.
The unmanned aerial vehicles will be used for maritime surveillance and intercepting asylum seeker boats.
The decision comes despite claims that the Royal Australian Air Force's top commanders have long opposed the acquisition of unmanned aerial vehicles because they will put pilots out of a job and threaten RAAF culture.
The $200 million Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone is the largest, most expensive unmanned aerial vehicle in the world today.
Its vast wingspan of 39.8 metres can lift the craft to 65,000 feet and stay airborne for 35 hours with a non-stop range of 16,000 kilometres – eclipsing the endurance of similar manned aircraft.
In 2004, the Howard government was so impressed with Global Hawk that plans were announced to buy a fleet of 12 of the spy drones for $1 billion.
But in 2009 the acquisition was cancelled by Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon, who was defence minister at the time.
In May 2010, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a Coalition government would buy three Global Hawks.
Despite this erratic political flight path, the idea of Australian Global Hawks remained in bureaucratic mothballs until July this year, when the latest Defence Capability Plan was quietly released.
Buried in the document were plans to bring forward by three years the acquisition of "high altitude, long endurance" unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The RAAF now wants seven large UAVs flying by 2019.
The favoured option is a new, maritime surveillance version of the Global Hawk - the MQ4C Triton.
The estimated cost of the project is between $2 billion and $3 billion.
Triton had a shaky take-off in June 2012, when a demonstration version of the maritime drone crashed just three days before the official unveiling ceremony at Northrop Grumman's Californian factory.
A company spokesman insists the demonstrator that went down was an old, worn-out Global Hawk, bearing little resemblance to the new, improved Triton.
When it takes to the skies for the first time later this year, Triton will appear to be a slightly larger version of its cousin, Global Hawk.
However, leading American intelligence analyst and author Matthew Aid says they are two very different drones.
"Global Hawk was designed for pin-point imagery or eavesdropping on land targets, by over flight, or by flying obliquely up to 450 kilometres off an enemy’s coastline," he said.
"Triton was designed for broad area maritime surveillance – following ships from high altitude."
The US Navy expects to start flying the first of 68 Tritons on order by 2015.
Some will be based on the US territory of Guam to cover the Asia-Pacific region, while another detachment will fly out of Diego Garcia to monitor the Indian Ocean.
In March, the Washington Post reported that the US is also considering basing Global Hawk/Triton on Australia's Cocos Islands.
The US Navy claims a single Triton 24-hour surveillance mission can cover nearly 7 million square kilometres of ocean – identifying every vessel in one vast sweep of the ocean.
But Mr Aid remains unimpressed.
"Triton does not have anywhere near the range or payload capability of the Global Hawk, and from what I can gather its imaging sensors are nowhere near as good," he said.
The Royal Australian Air Force now wants Triton to support a new generation of manned maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8A, which looks like a converted 737 airliner.
Together, these two systems will replace the RAAF's aging fleet of P3 Orions that have spent decades patrolling the vast expanse of ocean surrounding Australia - about 20 per cent of the world's sea surface.
Capable of being armed with both missiles and torpedos, the 8 P8 Poseidons already on order will also be capable of anti-submarine warfare.
But is Global Hawk/Triton worth the hefty price tag of at least $200 million each?'Read more