Air 7000 & JP129

Australia is making substantial investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

10th Feb 2010



Air 7000 & JP129

Australia is making substantial investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

While Project Air 5276 is under way to ensure the type makes it to retirement in 2018, further costly airframe, aircraft and mission system upgrades would be required to operate the AP-3C beyond that date, says the DCP.

The USN plans to purchase more than 100 P-8As to replace its P-3Cs, providing greater payload capacity, significant growth potential, unprecedented flexibility and interoperability, and advanced mission systems, software and communications, according to Boeing.

Australia was previously offered a role in P-8A development in return for a $300 million investment in the programme in 2005 but that offer was turned down by the Howard government.

The Australian Defence Force has a vast expanse of air and sea space to monitor which places increased emphasis on choosing the right surveillance solutions to meet the country’s needs.

This fact was acknowledged in last year’s Defence White Paper: “The sheer size of the air and sea space within our primary operational environment presents particular challenges in relation to surveillance and armed maritime response across such a vast area.”

To meet the challenge the government plans to acquire eight new maritime patrol aircraft to replace the ageing Lockheed AP-3C Orion fleet when the type comes up for retirement in 2018. In addition, the manned platform will be supplemented with up to seven large, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles which will have an ocean spanning range and will “markedly expand the surveillance coverage of the maritime approaches to Australia, in both area and duration”, says the White Paper. In addition, the UAVs will have a “significant overland capability to provide support to our ground forces in a range of circumstances”, it adds.

Australia is making substantial investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. “We need comprehensive levels of situational awareness in the ADF’s primary operational environment, including a capacity for continuous wide area surveillance of our northern approaches. In other contingencies, we need very high levels of situational awareness in the specific area of ADF operations,” says the White Paper.

Some A$5 billion alone is expected to be spent on an AP-3C replacement under Project Air 7000 Phase 2B. In May 2009, Australia signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States Navy for the co-operative development of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft and support systems in what was seen as the first move towards an order for the aircraft to meet its Project Air 7000 Phase 2B requirement. The AP-3C Orion fleet is due to be retired in 2018 after 30 years of Royal Australian Air Force Service.

Air 7000 Phase 2B is intended to acquire a replacement manned aircraft for the Orion, capable of maritime intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and response (MISSR) roles; overland intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR); and electronic support (ES). The 2018 withdrawal date for the Orion has been set due to airframe fatigue and corrosion, aircraft system supportability and mission system obsolescence issues, with aircraft engines, hydraulics, electrical, oxygen and fuel systems proving particularly costly to support as the platform ages, according to the 2009 Defence Capability Plan (DCP). While Project Air 5276 is under way to ensure the type makes it to retirement in 2018, further costly airframe, aircraft and mission system upgrades would be required to operate the AP-3C beyond that date, says the DCP.

Australia is planning to acquire eight military-off-the-shelf maritime patrol and response aircraft through a government-to-government co-operative programme. According to the DCP, a decision is planned in financial year 2013-14 to 2015-16, with an initial operating capability scheduled for 2017 to 2019.

These aircraft will provide a highly advanced surface search radar and optical, infra-red and electronic system, former minister of defence Joel Fitzgibbon said when announcing the MoU in May. With these systems, along with a high transit speed and the ability to conduct air-to-air refueling, these aircraft will provide a superior capability for rapid area search and identification tasks. They will also provide a highly advanced anti-submarine warfare capability, including the ability to engage submarines using air-launched torpedoes.

Under the terms of the agreement with the USN, Australia is collaborating in Spiral One – the first in a series of improvements planned through the life of the P-8A. Incidentally, the USN no longer refers to it as Spiral One but it is now known as the Increment Two upgrade programme, with the baseline P-8A known as Increment One. “Through participation in the P-8A Spiral One co-operative development programme, Defence seeks to gain information on the P-8A to support the acquisition and through-life support decisions, provide opportunities for Australian industry and influence the direction of P-8A improvements,” Defence said when the MoU was signed.

The P-8A is a derivative of the Boeing Next Generation 737-800. It is being developed for the USN by a Boeing-led industry team that comprises CFM International, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, GE Aviation and Spirit AeroSystems. CFM supplies the CFM56-7 engines; Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems is responsible for the directional infrared countermeasures system and the electronic support measures system, while its Mission Systems division has developed data links for the aircraft and its Integrated Systems sector is supporting the mission planning effort; Raytheon is providing an upgraded APS-137 maritime surveillance radar and signals intelligence solution, as well as GPS anti-jam, integrated friend or foe, towed decoy self-protection suites, broadcast info system and secure UHF satcom capability; GE Aviation is supplying the flight management and stores management systems; while Spirit Aerosystems is building the 737 fuselage and airframe tail sections and struts.

The USN plans to purchase more than 100 P-8As to replace its P-3Cs, providing greater payload capacity, significant growth potential, unprecedented flexibility and interoperability, and advanced mission systems, software and communications, according to Boeing.

In addition, at the beginning of last year Boeing signed a contract with India to provide eight P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft to the Indian Navy, with the P-8I being a derivative of the P-8A designed specifically for that customer.

The Poseidon is powered by two CFM56-7 engines providing 27,000lbs of thrust each; it is 39.47m in length and a wing span of 37.64m. At a maximum takeoff gross weight of 85,139kg, it has a range of 1,200nm-plus with four hours on station at a speed of 490kts.

Boeing was awarded a US$3.89 billion contract for the system development and demonstration phase of the programme in June 2004. This includes developing and integrating all the necessary software and onboard mission systems and developing training systems. “The P-8A is expected to significantly transform how the Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance force will train, operate and deploy,” according to Boeing.

A successful critical design review for the programme was completed in July 2007, with production starting on the first of five test aircraft that December at Spirit Aerosystems’ Wichita facility. Final assembly of the first aircraft started in March 2008, was completed in July and the aircraft conducted its first flight in April last year. In July, Boeing and the USN formally unveiled the first aircraft.

Late last year Boeing and Raytheon completed installation of an APY-10 radar antenna on P-8A test aircraft T2 at Boeing’s Developmental Center in Seattle. T2 is the programme’s primary mission system test article and flew for the first time last June. T2 was scheduled to enter the USN’s flight test programme in early 2010. As part of the test flight programme, three P-8As will be stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River this year.

The Increment Two upgrade programme will incorporate a number of upgrades to the baseline aircraft, according to the Australian Department of Defence. These include advanced explosive echo ranging multi-static acoustic detection capability; high-altitude torpedo delivery; automatic identification system to provide shipping identification data; and intelligence broadcast system for increased situational awareness.

Under the agreement with the USN, Australia has provided project management and technical staff to the P-8A Increment Two Joint Program Office. These staff facilitate Australian access to P-8A technical and performance information necessary to inform Air 7000 Phase 2 documentation for Defence and Government consideration during the two pass process, says Defence.

The MoU covers seven years – through to 2016 – which encompasses both the USN milestone C (production approval) and Australian Second Pass consideration timeframes, says Defence. The Department of Defence declines to talk numbers, with Australia reported to have already paid US$62 million up front to secure places in the production run, but says: “The Australian level of investment in the co-operative development programme consists of a number of personnel embedded within the Joint Program Office as co-operative programme personnel, a financial contribution and co-operation through areas such as the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. The exact amount for participation is not broken out from the total project funding.”

Australia was previously offered a role in P-8A development in return for a $300 million investment in the programme in 2005 but that offer was turned down by the Howard government.

“Australia, like other coalition nations, chose not to accept the USN’s offer to join the P-8A system development and design phase. The government decided that as the P-8A programme was progressing in a direction that was likely to satisfy Australia’s capability requirements, there was not a need to invest a considerable amount of money in the SDD phase,” explains Defence.

The Increment Two Joint Program Office is progressing toward Milestone A – technology development approval – scheduled for this year, with Milestone C – production approval – planned for 2014. Meanwhile, Air 7000 Phase 2 is progressing through the Kinnaird Two Pass approval system, with the Government due to decide whether to acquire the P-8A at Second Pass in the financial year 2013-14 to 2015-16 timeframe, says Defence.

Defence says it expects to develop a P-8A Australian Industry Capability Plan through the Boeing Office of Australian Industry Capability, the latter which was established by Boeing to support the commercial imperative of the Australian Government’s defence industry policy by providing Australian industry with competitive bidding opportunities in the global market place.

Meanwhile, the unmanned part of Air 7000 has been deferred. Air 7000 Phase 1B is intended to acquire a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) maritime UAV (MUAS), capable of maritime and overland ISR roles and ES, with Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk expected to meet that requirement. But last March then defence minister Fitzgibbon announced that the government had decided not to proceed on to the next partnership phase with the USN in the Global Hawk-based Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme. The reason given was that the BAMS programme had slipped, with the earliest possible in-service date moving out to 2015. Initial operational capability was originally planned for 2013.

“Introducing such an advanced new aircraft at this time would have caused incredible workforce pressures on the ADF, particularly given the requirement to transition the RAAF’s AP-3C Orion fleet to a new manned surveillance aircraft in the same period,” Fitzgibbon explained at the time. “The Australian Government has taken swift action to alleviate these transitional issues by declining the option to continue on with further collaboration with the USN’s developmental programme at this time,” he added.

Defence says it will start work on developing Air 7000 Phase 1B for Government consideration after 2016. “In the continuing development of Project Air 7000 Phase 1B, Defence will continue to closely monitor the progress of the USN’s BAMS programme and other similar UAS. A decision regarding the capability options to support a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned maritime surveillance capability will be made after 2016,” it says.

In the meantime, the ADF is gaining invaluable experience of UAVs with the Army and RAAF.

Since 2006 Australia has been operating Elbit Systems’ Skylark mini-UAV (MUAV) as a Tier One UAS. Each Skylark MUAV system comprises three airframes and the ground control station hardware. In total, the Army’s 20 Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment has eight systems integrated into the unit’s Surveillance Troop which provides surveillance support to battle groups and combat teams.

The Skylark is operated on a regular basis within Australia for training purposes. The system was deployed to East Timor and Iraq but is no longer operational in these theatres, says Defence. “The system continues to provide a good over-the-hill ISR effect for ground troops, but works best when integrated into a broader ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance] effort. The upgrades to a digital version and introduction of an improved propulsion system have greatly improved reliability and overall performance of the UAV,” says Defence.

Skylark is not a long-term solution, however, but rather provides “an excellent lead-in capability to the JP129 Phase 4 solution”, says Defence. JP129 Phase 4 will see the acquisition of a small Tier One UAS. First Pass approval for JP129 Phase 4 is scheduled for financial year 2010-11 to 2011-12, with a year of decision scheduled for FY2011-12 to 2012-13 and initial operating capability in 2013 to 2015.

The JP129 tactical UAV programme all changed in August 2008 when the government terminated its original contract with Boeing Australia. In late 2006, Boeing Australia was contracted to meet the Army’s TUAV requirement with Israel Aerospace Industries’ I-View 250 UAV adapted to meet Australian Army requirements. The contract was terminated when the programme was running more than two years late. At that time Defence said Boeing Australia and its subcontractors had “experienced a range of technical issues making it increasingly difficult to deliver the full scope of the contract within a timeframe acceptable to Defence”.

“Since the cancellation of the I-View contract, Defence has focussed on identifying an off-the-shelf tactical UAV fielded system that meets the ADF’s capability requirements, is operationally proven with a strong airworthiness history, is able to be expeditiously introduced into service and is sustainable for the anticipated JP129 Phase 2 life of type. Defence has examined a wide range of potential systems in this context,” it says.

Defence says it has also sought configuration, cost and schedule information from the US Army on the AAI Shadow 200 TUAS, which is used by the US Army (designated the RQ-7B by the Army) and Marine Corps for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and assessment. “Once received, this information will inform Defence advice to government on the way forward for JP129 Phase 2,” says Defence, adding that this advice is anticipated in the second quarter of this year.

In the meantime, the Army will continue to operate the Insitu/Boeing Scan Eagle which has been operated by Australia as a Tier 2 UAS since 2006. The Scan Eagle has been deployed by Australia in Iraq, from 2006-8, and Afghanistan from 2007 until the present day.

“The capability works best when fully integrated into the ISTAR plan of the supported land force. It is an extremely capable Tier 2 UAS, yet a relatively simple system that provides excellent ISTAR coverage through high-quality day and night imagery for the supported land force,” says Defence. It adds: “Improvements in engine systems, payloads and GCS configurations mean the ADF capability is constantly evolving and being enhanced. With 20 STA Regt, ScanEagle is now a regular player during Army and ADF exercises.”

Depending on operational circumstances, however, the selected JP129 Phase 2 solution would replace the currently contracted Scan Eagle TUAV capability, says Defence.

The latest development in UAV operations saw the launch in January of initial operations of the first Australian-leased Israel Aerospace Industries Heron 450 medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV supporting Australian, Afghan and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Under Project Nankeen, the Defence Materiel Organisation signed a contract with Canadian firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates to provide Heron unmanned aerial system (UAS) services – comprising the air vehicle, payloads, ground control station and processing and diseemination suite – to deliver high-resolution ISR capability supporting ADF and ISAF operations in southern Afghanistan. “The contract calls for operations at a specified rate of effort – number of flying hours – rather than a number of aircraft. For operational reasons, Defence will not discuss the rate of effort,” it says.

For the past five months, a RAAF-led ADF detachment, comprising RAAF and Army UAS pilots, payload operators, intelligence officers, imagery analysts, engineers, administrative and logistics personnel, has been preparing for the delivery of the Heron working with the Canadian Heron detachment in southern Afghanistan, drawing on the Canadians’ operational knowledge, experience and facilities, says Defence.

The initial training programme provided Australian personnel with the theatre qualifications to conduct operations and provide support for troops on the ground, says Defence. Initial operational capability has been achieved and development of the full capability is ongoing, with the Heron expected to be fully mission capable in the coming months, it adds.

Australia has an initial one-year contract to operate the Heron, with an option to extend for an additional two years of service. “This will provide Defence and Government an opportunity to assess medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS operations and determine the role of a MALE UAS in Australia’s future ISR requirements,” says Defence.

The Heron was selected following a detailed examination of off-the-shelf, low-risk ISR systems available to be quickly deployed to Afghanistan. “With factors of cost, integration into theatre, footprint, payload and lead time from concept to deployment, Heron was a robust choice,” says Defence.

The Heron is a one-tonne UAV capable of medium-altitude and long-endurance flights. It can operate in excess of 24 hours, with a maximum speed of more than 100 knots at an altitude of up to 10,000m. It has a wingspan of 16.6m and a length of 8.5m. The Heron carries a combination of sensors which communicate with the ground control station in real time.

The Heron will be operated in Afghanistan for a number of tasks, including surveillance, reconnaissance, security and escort, and battle damage assessment. “The system is significantly enhancing force protection through providing ground commanders timely situational awareness. The Heron’s long-endurance characteristic enhances the ADF’s other operational ISR capabilities in Afghanistan, which currently include Air Force AP-3C Orion and the Army’s Scan Eagle tactical UAV,” says Defence.

APDR at a glance