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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia has committed to purchasing the U.S. Navy's MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft, its prime minister said on Thursday, continuing a trend amongst Asia-Pacific nations to protect commercial maritime interests amid rising regional tensions.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that Australia will acquire an undisclosed number of the surveillance aircraft once they become available. The U.S. Navy is still testing the Triton and has plans to buy 68, with the first due in service in 2017.
The aircraft will be used "to secure our ocean resources, including energy resources off northern Australia, and help to protect our borders", Abbott said in the statement.
Defence analysts say maritime surveillance is the most pressing security need in East and Southeast Asia. Rival maritime claims that have pitted China, which has one of the world's fastest growing militaries, against Japan and other Asian nations have made the South and East China Seas dangerous flashpoints.
More than 80 percent of China's oil imports transit through the Indian Ocean on Australia's west coast. Japan, India and South Korea are also dependent on Indian Ocean routes.
The Triton, under development by Northrop Grumman (NOC.N), is the size of a small airliner with a 40-metre wingspan. It can cruise at 20,000 metres for up to 30 hours, sweeping a distance greater than Sydney to London with 360-degree radar and sensors including infra-red and optical cameras.
Australia wants drone aircraft to complement its purchase last month of eight of Boeing Co's (BA.N) P-8A Poseidon long-range spy planes for A$4 billion ($3.6 billion).
Abbott said that the total number of Triton aircraft to be acquired, as well as their introduction into service date, will be decided in 2016.
The planes will be based at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia state, Abbott said, and will bring in A$100 ($89.72) million in investments to the state, which has struggled with the loss of its manufacturing sector.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Michael Perry