The first Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-mission aircraft (MMA) destined for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) made its first flight last week. The event illustrates Australia’s effort to enhance its maritime domain awareness and security against a backdrop of the rise of China and India. The country’s recent Defence White Paper emphasized the safeguarding of its maritime approaches, offshore territories and borders, and supporting a “secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.”
The aircraft flew a short distance from Renton Airfield to Boeing Field in Seattle, where its sophisticated systems will be installed before the aircraft is handed over to the RAAF and returns to Australia in November. Australia has ordered eight P-8As under Project AIR 7000, but the White Paper stated an intention to eventually operate 15 aircraft by the early 2020s. The Poseidons will replace the RAAF’s AP-3C Orions, which will be fully withdrawn from service in 2019.
In addition to the P-8As, Australia has also flagged the acquisition of the Northrop-Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (HALE UAV) to enter service in the early 2020s. Seven will be acquired to complement the P-8As in conducting long-endurance overwater surveillance operations.
Other than the P-8As and Tritons, the Defence White Paper has also indicated some of Australia’s procurement priorities over the next decade. The RAAF will also acquire three more Gulfstream G550s converted to intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare (ISREW) aircraft. These will add to two aircraft announced in 2015 and will be used to enhance electronic warfare support to naval, air and land operations.
The White Paper also envisionss a further boost to the RAAF’s heavy-lift capability. Australia currently has eight Boeing C-17A strategic airlifters, and it is not yet clear what form this enhanced heavy-lift capability will take as C-17 production has ended, but second-hand C-17s (if available) and the Airbus A400M Atlas are possible solutions.
Australia’s rotary-wing fleet has also been slated for expansion in the White Paper. Combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopters will be acquired, plus light reconnaissance and attack helicopters to support special operations. The latter will be acquired from around 2025, with the ability for rapid deployment of three to four at a time, plus personnel, by C-17s. The Boeing AH-6i and MD Helicopters MD530 have been cited as possible contenders, but the Airbus Helicopters H145M could also be in the running.