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Drones to protect Australian gas

The Global Hawk flew non-stop from the U.S. West Coast to Australia in April 2001.
Robert Hill

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia will start trials next year using unmanned aerial vehicles to protect the country's most valuable resource project, the North West Shelf.

Defense Minister Robert Hill said Thursday the trials will be of two U.S.-made drones, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk and the General Atomics Mariner.

The Global Hawk made history in April 2001 when it flew non-stop across the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Australia -- a 23-hour flight that covered 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers).

The Mariner is the maritime surveillance variant of the Predator UAV that has been used in U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hill said the UAVs will be able to stay in the air for 24 hours or more, and provide constant surveillance of the North West Shelf oil and gas reserves and platforms off the coast of Western Australia.

The North West Shelf exports billions of dollars worth of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil annually to key customers in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

China has also contracted to take Aust. $25 billion ($17.5 billion) worth of LNG over a 25-year period from next year. It gave the commitment in August 2002, after strong lobbying from Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Howard said Thursday the North West Shelf was a strategic national asset that needed to be protected, particularly in times of global uncertainty.

He said that in addition to the surveillance trials next year by the Global Hawk and Mariner UAVs, two extra patrol boats would be based near the North West Shelf to provide dedicated coverage.

Howard, who leads the Liberal-National coalition government in a bid for a fourth term at the October 9 election, has campaigned heavily on the government's stance on national security issues and border protection.

His opponent, Labor leader Mark Latham, has also stressed his commitment to national security, but has attacked Howard's support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Latham's defense spokesman, Kim Beazley -- a former Labor leader and defense minister in the Labor government that lost office in 1996 -- welcomed the government's proposal.

But he told Australian radio Thursday that the UAVs were already known to be a valuable asset for coastal surveillance, and the government should just go ahead and buy the aircraft.

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