This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
For years it seemed certain that Australia would buy eight Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime aircraft, with a strong likelihood of supplementing them with seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned surveillance aircraft. With both types, the Royal Australian Air Force would have, in effect, an extension of the system that the U.S. Navy is developing in its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program.
Now it looks like Boeing and perhaps General Atomics, builder of the Triton-rival Predator B, have more opportunities in the program, Air 7000.
The RAAF is quietly making a case for 12 Poseidons, arguing that eight would not be enough to cover the vast oceans surrounding the continent. And the unmanned requirement is now described as "up to" seven high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, potentially reducing Northrop Grumman's opportunity. At the same time the air force sees an argument for a supplementary drone, possibly the Predator, to take on some of the electronic-intelligence missions that would otherwise fall to the Poseidons and Tritons.
The aircraft that need to be replaced -- 18 P-3C Orions updated to a local standard called AP-3C -- are due for retirement around 2019, says a defense department spokeswoman. Keeping the Orions flying demands increasingly close attention. "The sustainment strategy for the Orion fleet has transitioned to a maintenance-intensive safety-by-inspection program, comprising targeted structural inspections and repairs," says the spokeswoman. Despite the challenges, the aircraft are meeting requirements.
Although Australia chose the Poseidon in 2007 as the Orion replacement, the government is not due to approve purchase of the Boeing aircraft until sometime between the middle of this year and mid-2016. The decision on the unmanned aircraft is expected a little later, between mid-2015 and mid-2018, as part of a schedule that last year was advanced by 3-4 years. The change was made to "better synchronize" the drone with the introduction of the Poseidon -- primarily anti-submarine aircraft -- and withdrawal of the Orions, says the spokeswoman.
"Included among the peacetime roles for these assets will be surveillance of Australia's maritime approaches, with both the manned and unmanned capabilities operating in a complementary manner," says the spokeswoman. While no further details on the concept of operations were divulged, it is likely that unarmed surveillance drones on patrol missions lasting more than a day will be deployed far into the Indian Ocean and will be the first to detect surface targets. They would then cue interception of the target by a Poseidon that might be loitering in the air or be scrambled from its base.
Alternatively, either aircraft could be cued by other sources of information, or could cue different ships or aircraft, exploiting information systems planned under separate projects. "Close coordination between Project Air 7000 and future information-system projects will be an essential enabler to the success of future aircraft systems," says the spokeswoman.
The requirement for up to seven surveillance drones appears to be based on maintaining two patrols. The U.S. Navy expects to sustain surveillance zones 3,700 km (2,000 nm) from Triton bases, each patrol supported by three aircraft, plus one as a spare. For Australia, a single spare could back up two patrol groups. Alternatively, more patrols closer to the country could be maintained -- or Australia could just buy fewer Tritons or opt for the shorter-range Predator B.
Although the Predator B is traditionally viewed as a medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, that description may be misleading. General Atomics says the aircraft can fly at 50,000 ft., hardly a medium altitude, although not with an array of external pods.
Even if the Triton is chosen, the Predator B may have a second chance at entering Australian service. A senior air force official says that, apart from maritime surveillance, the Poseidons and the chosen drone will be heavily tasked with electronic intelligence -- collecting signals emitted by other countries. That work could be so time-consuming as to justify a dedicated electronic-intelligence aircraft, letting the maritime aircraft attend to their primary role. The government has not yet approved any such capability.
Poseidon and Triton are already designed for electronic intelligence. The exact capabilities are classified, but the U.S. Navy has said the Northrop Grumman drone will play a key role in the replacement of the intelligence version of the Orion, the EP-3. Conceivably, Australia could also seek to fit its own electronic-intelligence equipment to the Triton. The aircraft has a little spare space, but not much.