April 15, 2013
Credit: U.S. Navy
More advanced maritime patrol aircraft could soon be on Australia's horizon and, in a separate development, the country is poised to issue a request for tender (RFT) for new primary trainers.
“We're looking at making a decision sometime in the next two years, and in 2018, to start getting the first ones,” says Australia's air chief, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, referring to the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) need for advanced maritime patrol aircraft to replace 19 Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orions. Australia's defense department agreed last October to help with further development of the Boeing P-8A with a view to ordering the aircraft eventually.
The plan is to replace the AP-3Cs over an 18-month period and then start adding unmanned aerial vehicles, says Brown. The manned aircraft are the first priority because “the P-8 can do everything that the P-3 can, but the UAV can't,” he says. “However, what the UAV gives us is more advanced surveillance capability.” Bigger UAVs such as the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, for example, can cover larger areas, he notes.
The RAAF plans to operate the UAVs for lengthy periods of time to achieve more constant surveillance coverage. If the UAV detects something, a manned aircraft will be called in to investigate, says Brown.
Lockheed Martin has a life-extension program for the P-3s, but Brown argues that the type has become too difficult and costly to maintain: “The P-3 has quite advanced avionics. But as a platform goes, its becomes more unreliable, and availability has gone down.”
Some industry observers suggest it makes sense to base the future fleet of P-8s in Darwin or northwest Australia, in order to monitor the littoral zones there. The AP-3C aircraft are based at RAAF Base Edinburgh near Adelaide, South Australia.
However, Brown says the P-8s will likely be based at Edinburgh to avoid logistical problems such as the increased cost and difficulty of getting personnel to work at a base in the north/northwest. He says the air force has proven with the AP-3Cs that aircraft based at Edinburgh can deploy to Darwin and Learmonth, a northwestern coastal town. There is no limit to how long an aircraft can be deployed away from its main base, other than when it is due for heavy maintenance, says Brown.