Australia is to almost double its planned fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and response aircraft, increasing its purchase from the eight currently on order to a total of 15. The decision to purchase an extra seven of these aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was revealed as part of the country’s 2016 Defence White Paper, which was unveiled on February 25.
The additional P-8As will be purchased in two tranches, the first batch comprising four aircraft, which will be converted into firm orders from options already held as part of the original contract. A further three will then be ordered at a later date to bring the fleet up to 15 by the late 2020s.
The White Paper also confirmed plans to acquire seven unmanned Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to supplement the Poseidon capability in the maritime environment. While the proposed buy had previously been announced, this was the first confirmation of the actual number involved. Short-range maritime tactical unmanned aircraft will also be acquired to improve the situational awareness of Australian Navy ships on operations.
The White Paper also revealed proposals to buy two more heavy lift aircraft in addition to the eight current RAAF C-17As, although with production of the latter now ended, an alternative type will have to be acquired. The Airbus KC-30A air refuelling tanker fleet will also be expanded from the current five. Two more currently under conversion were already known about, but there are now plans to add two more to bring the fleet to nine.
Electronic warfare (EW) support to naval, air and land forces for operation in hostile electromagnetic environments will involve the acquisition of five commercial Gulfstream G550 business jets converted for the role. A contract had been awarded on December 28 for an initial two G550s for this mission, but this is now being expanded with additional airframes.
Further enhancing ISR capabilities, armed medium altitude UAVs will be introduced in the early 2020s and be given regular capability upgrades. They will provide enhanced firepower and ISR support to a range of missions, including counter-terrorism missions overseas, while augmenting surveillance capability for search-and-rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and other tasks.
From the mid-2020s, the Army’s 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters will be replaced with a new armed reconnaissance capability. This could involve either manned or unmanned systems, or a combination of both. Dedicated light helicopters will also be acquired to support Special Forces operations. These will be capable of being rapidly deployed in C-17s and be able to insert, extract and provide fire support for small Special Forces teams undertaking tasks ranging from tactical observation to counter-terrorism missions or hostage recovery.
The Army’s seven CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters will be supplemented in the near term by a further three. Plans for this acquisition had already been revealed on December 21 when it was announced that US State Department approval had been granted for the order through the Foreign Military Sales system.
As the Australian Defence Force does not have a dedicated combat search and rescue (CSAR) capability and also has limited battlefield aero-medical evacuation (medevac) capabilities, efforts will be made to fill this capability gap. Initially, this will be achieved by upgrades to Chinook helicopters, improving their ability to conduct medevac missions. In the longer-term, options will be investigated to enable CSAR tasks to be carried out much faster and at long range. Alan Warnes