Retirement of Australia’s long-serving P-3 Orion fleet—planned for 2021—moved a step closer on March 20 with the announcement that its replacement, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, had attained initial operating capability (IOC) five months ahead of schedule.
The Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, said that declaring IOC is “a significant milestone because the P-8A is a fundamental element of Australian Defence Force's future maritime strategy. The arrival of the P-8A has allowed the Air Force, under Plan Jericho, to develop and evolve new operating concepts, support arrangements, and sustainment options."
Jericho is the Royal Australian Air Force’s transformation plan based on leveraging advanced technology, including the E-7A Wedgetail, F-35, and EA-18G Growler. The P-8 forms an important element of Jericho, particularly when combined with the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton HALE UAVs that are being procured to operate alongside it. “The acquisition of the P-8A represents a $5 billion investment in Australia’s maritime patrol capability and, along with the MQ-4C Triton, [the aircraft] will be a very capable and effective successor to the AP-3C Orion,” commented Davies.
Australia announced selection of the P-8A to fulfill its Project Air 7000 maritime patrol requirement in July 2007 and committed to the purchase in 2014. The first was handed over in the U.S. in September 2016 and arrived in Canberra on November 16. Currently 12 have been ordered for delivery by March 2020, and six are now operational with No. 11 Squadron at RAAF Edinburgh, near Adelaide in South Australia. A total of 15 was committed to in the 2016 Defence White Paper, and funding for the remaining three is progressing through routine governmental processes. Seven MQ-4Cs have been ordered to complement the manned platforms.
Notable events since the arrival of the first P-8 in Australia include the type’s first search-and-rescue mission in May 2017, when Poseidon “Blackcat 20” intercepted a mayday call from a stricken vessel during a training mission and subsequently coordinated the response. In June an RAAF P-8 undertook the first overseas deployment, operating from RMAF Butterworth in Malaysia as part of Operation Gateway, Australia’s commitment to security and stability in Southeast Asia. Last month an Australian P-8 made the type's overseas public debut with an appearance at the Singapore Air Show.
The combined P-8A/MQ-4C force is replacing a pooled force of 18 AP-3C Orions that currently serve with No. 92 Wing at Edinburgh, which parents Nos. 10, 11 and 292 (training) squadrons. They represent the third major incarnation of the Orion operated by the RAAF, which initially acquired P-3Bs starting in 1968 before receiving P-3Cs beginning in 1978. In the early 2000s the fleet underwent a major modernization, resulting in the AP-3C with Elta EL/M-2022 search radar and many other improvements.
AP-3Cs were deployed from 2002 to the Middle East to support coalition operations until 2012, by which time the Orions had flown 2,400 missions in theater. The type has also been the primary Australian air asset during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Currently the fleet supports Operations Gateway and Resolute (Australian border security).