AIR 7000 – ISR FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

Defence’s ambitious project to replace the current Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion with both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, is one of the ‘big ticket’ items of defence budgets over the next ten or twelve years.

1st Oct 2010


Defence’s ambitious project to replace the current Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion with both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, is one of the ‘big ticket’ items of defence budgets over the next ten or twelve years.

AIR 7000 broadly parallels the US Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme, and aims to provide a Maritime Patrol and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability beyond the life of the AP-3C. As such, it will compete with projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter, Air Warfare Destroyer, Amphibious Warfare vessel and perhaps even the Future Submarine for funding between now and the mid-2020s.

Although there is no firm commitment at the present time, Defence is expected to acquire the same platforms that the US Navy has selected to fulfil BAMS: the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Global Hawk. Indeed the intent to acquire eight new maritime patrol aircraft was announced by the Rudd Government at the release of the Defence White Paper in May last year, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth and the United States Navy to cooperate in the development of the P-8A.

The unmanned portion of AIR 7000 is shrouded in uncertainty however. Coincident with the announcement of eight manned aircraft was a release saying that seven unmanned systems would also be acquired. Although seemingly following the BAMS roadmap, this release followed an announcement a couple of months earlier by then Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon that acquisition of such a capability would be pushed out to sometime beyond 2019.

The 18-strong fleet of AP-3C Orions currently operating with the RAAFs Surveillance and Response Group have an identified Planned Withdrawal Date of 2018. If this is to be observed, the timing of AIR 7000 will be critical to the maintenance of a viable Maritime Patrol/ISR capability.

AIR 7000 GOALS

When Australia’s first P-3C Orions were delivered in the late 1970s, the cold war was in full swing and the prime focus was on the detection, tracking and, if necessary, destruction of submarines. As a maritime nation, Australia relies heavily on merchant shipping and has a need to keep tabs on large areas of coastline and ocean. In addition, the energy resources of areas such as the northwest shelf and Bass Strait require surveillance and protection and the Orion force has also played a major role in the detection of illegal fishing and immigration vessels.

With the fall of the iron curtain in the early 1990s however, the anti-submarine role has diminished greatly (though it is now argued it is becoming increasingly important once again as regional navies acquire sophisticated submarines) and the traditional maritime patrol platform has morphed into a multi-purpose ISR asset that is capable of operation in open ocean, littoral and overland theatres.

The P-3C fleet was upgraded to AP-3C standard by Project Air 5276 (Sea Sentinel) in the 1990s, with the installation of a modern Magnetic Anomaly Detector, ESM (previously incorporated into the fleet), Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar, Computing Devices, a new Acoustic Processor and Data Management System, laser-ring embedded GPS and three UHF/VHF, two HF, and SATCOM units. Further Block Upgrades have refreshed the EWSP and EO/IR sensors and this has produced a very capable (if unique) ISR asset. The AP-3Cs have been continuously deployed to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) in support of operations ‘Catalyst’ and ‘Slipper’, largely in the overland (Iraq and Afghanistan) and littoral (Iraq) ISR roles, and this experience has influenced the requirements of AIR 7000 a great deal.

Worldwide fatigue issues with the Orion, coupled with the realisation that the AP-3C would need to undergo a further Sea Sentinel-style upgrade to remain current beyond the end of this decade saw the development of a two-phase programme to replace and enhance Australia’s maritime patrol and ISR capability.

As noted, the United States Navy also has BAMS under development, however the size of the US military means it has other assets with which to conduct overland and littoral ISR missions and the fundamental difference between BAMS and AIR 7000 therefore, is the inclusion of these roles in latter.
Mirroring BAMS to a large extent, AIR 7000 is divided into manned (Phase 2B) and unmanned (Phase 1B) components, with the former initially looking at either upgrading or replacing the AP-3C before settling on the P-8A as the preferred option.

According to Defence, the aims of AIR 7000 were initially to: “Consider the future of the AP-3C in the context of future ADF requirements for maritime patrol and response. This will include the exploration of a broad range of options including aircraft refurbishment/re-manufacture or replacement, and the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) as an adjunct to manned platforms. While the project will be focused on the acquisition of a capability centred on maritime patrol and response roles, it will also support electronic and land surveillance roles.”

It described the two components of the project in the following manner. “Phase 1B is intended to consider and further develop options leading to the acquisition of a high altitude long endurance unmanned aerial system that can perform all-weather, long endurance surveillance and reconnaissance tasks over maritime and land environments. The Phase 1 capability is an essential adjunct to the manned capability acquired under Air 7000 Phase 2B. Phase 2B is intended to ensure that the ADF has a manned Maritime Patrol Aircraft system capable of performing maritime patrol and response tasks.”

PROJECT HISTORY

Phase 1B can trace its origins back to the Defence White Paper and subsequent Capability Plan of 2001, when the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk was first mooted as the solution for Australia’s requirement for greater surveillance capabilities “as we continue the work of making our coastlines and waters secure from illegal incursions”. The White Paper stipulated a “capability goal of developing a comprehensive surveillance system providing continuous coverage of our extended air and sea approaches” under Project JP2062.

It flagged the Global Hawk as the solution and projected seeking final approval for the purchase in 2004/2005. The DCP provided between $100 and 150 million for the purchase and planned to receive the first aircraft in 2007.

Significantly it aligned Australia’s requirements to what would become BAMS saying, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles are emerging concepts that offer Australia a great deal of potential for surveillance, reconnaissance, information gathering and eventually the delivery of combat power. To this end Australia will continue a cooperative project in a major Unmanned Aerial program with the United States.”

JP2062 was ultimately combined with the AP-3C refurbishment/replacement and subsumed into AIR 7000 as Phase 1B.

Following the successful trials of a General Atomics Mariner UAV over the Northwest Shelf (North West Shelf Unmanned Aerial System Trial) in late 2006 and the subsequent virtual testing of the Global Hawk’s capabilities, Defence pronounced itself satisfied that a UAV could meet the necessary requirements of Phase 1B. Both Mariner and Global Hawk were at that time candidates for BAMS.

In July 2007 the then Liberal Government of John Howard granted First Pass approval to the manned Phase (2B). Reportedly by then a $4 billion project, First Pass opened the way for formal negotiations with the US Navy to participate in the cooperative development of the P 8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA).

Phase 1B however was at that time delayed by the need to await downselect of the US Navy’s preferred BAMS solution, which had then been put back to early 2008. A ‘Defence Spokesperson’ said that the delay would “ensure Defence is able to provide the Government with all relevant details of the selected BAMS capability. Intermediate Consideration for Phase 1 will be presented to Government after the BAMS decision has been made.” The requirement had been for an in-service date of 2013, with Initial Operational Capability in 2015 and Full Operational Capability following in 2017. The timing would have developed future P-8A doctrine by working up alongside the AP-3C and estimated project cost at that time was $1.5 billion. Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4N Global Hawk was ultimately selected as the winner of the unmanned component of BAMS in April 2008.

Australia had also signed a US$15 million co-operative agreement with the US Government in January 2008 to influence the development of a littoral and overland surveillance capability for the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to meet its requirements.

The US Navy had also previously invited Australia, Canada and Italy to participate in the project System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the P-8A programme. This would have required each country contribute US$ 300 million for the privilege, but the idea did not bear fruit.

Meanwhile, because Phase 2B was also looking at refurbishing the Orion in lieu of replacement, Australian Aerospace began looking at the former solution towards the end of the last decade. In late 2008 the company briefed the Defence Materiel Organization on a proposal to structurally refurbish the AP-3C, replacing the known areas of fatigue (outer wings, centre section and horizontal stabilizer) thereby extending the PWD beyond 2018. In addition, three separate studies were conducted by Australian Aerospace and BAe Australia to look at extending the PWD to 2021, 2024 or 2027 should the need arise.

In March last year, just prior to the Avalon Airshow, former Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced that Australia would not proceed in the next partnership phase of BAMS and would defer the acquisition of the unmanned component. Fitzgibbon said that the delivery schedule had slipped out to 2015 at the earliest and would therefore clash with the Australian manned aircraft introduction. "Introducing such an advanced new aircraft at this time would have caused incredible workforce pressures on the Australian Defence Force, particularly given the requirement to transition the Air Force's AP-3C Orion fleet to a new manned surveillance aircraft in the same time period," he said “Blindly pushing on with the program would have placed a huge and unnecessary strain on our personnel in trying to potentially manage three separate airframes at the one time and I was not prepared to place this unnecessary burden on our men and women in uniform.”

By this time, the world was in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis, and this may have also played a big part in Fitzgibbon’s decision. Certainly Northrop Grumman appears to think so, in a media release immediately after the announcement, John Brooks, the President of Northrop Grumman International said, “We are not yet aware of the details of the Australian decision, although we understand that financial pressures on the Australian defence budget were a major factor, we also appreciate that the Australian government remains committed to utilizing unmanned surveillance to complement its manned surveillance assets.”
In response to questions about the future of Phase 1B and the possibility of Global Hawk being selected, a ‘Defence Spokesperson’ told APDR that “Defence will develop AIR 7000 Ph 1B for Government consideration beyond 2019 and continues to monitor the development of potential contenders. The RQ-4N ‘BAMS’ Global Hawk remains a strong contender and Defence will continue to monitor its progress. Other comparable UAS that enter the marketplace may also be considered although no specific platforms are currently under investigation.”
Shortly after this, hopes of refurbishing the Orion fleet were dashed once and for all when Fitzgibbon announced the signing of a MoU with the US Navy to co-operatively develop upgrades to the P-8A and its support systems. In effect this buys Australia into the Increment Two (formerly Spiral One) development path of the Poseidon, which will come into service with the US Navy from 2013. Of note is the $5 billion price tag mentioned in the media release, up from the $4 billion mentioned at First Pass in 2007.

Present timing for Phase 2B is for Government to consider the case for acquisition in the period FY2013-14 to FY 2015-16.

BOEING P-8A POSEIDON

Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon is based upon the commercially successful 737 airliner and the structure is basically a 737-800 with the structurally enhanced wings of the -900.

It has five Mission Tactical Workstations in the mid cabin but the number of crew may vary, dictated by the mission requirement workload. The baseline crew will consist of 2 TACCOs, 2 Acoustic Operators, 1 Non-Acoustic Operator and one In-Flight Technician (IFT). By comparison the current USN P-3 complement is around 11. A Tactical Display is also incorporated into the flight deck.

Equipment includes the Rockwell-Collins Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), Link 22 Datalink and a spinning DF antenna (the same as that fitted to the EA-18G Growler) is mounted under a radome in the belly to provide ESM. Three Automated Rotary Launchers are installed in the cabin, aft of the wing, with attendant sonobuoy racks capable of housing 126 sonobouys. There are four 1450lb rated weapons stations in the weapons bay aft of the wing and a further two under the forward fuselage. Four underwing pylons are each rated to 3000 lbs.

Sensors include the Raytheon APY-10 Inverted Synthetic Aperture Radar (with colour Weather Radar capability) in the nose and a Wescam MX-20 EO/IR sensor in a retractable turret under the fuselage. A CAE Magnetic Anomaly Detector had been specified in the baseline design but now deleted for US Navy aircraft, as Boeing says the acoustic system meets its performance parameters without it.

Baseline USN weapons will be the Mk.54 torpedo and Boeing’s AGM-84H SLAM-ER missile. A standard range of naval mines can also be carried.

Performance requirements are for a 1200 nautical mile range with four hours on station. The P-8A is capable of in flight refuelling using the USAF boom and receptacle method.

The US Navy initially ordered 108 P-8As, with a further five used as test aircraft. It has since increased the number to 117 (and eight test aircraft) and six similar P-8Is are on order for India (interestingly retaining the MAD), which are due for delivery from 2013.

Three of the test aircraft are now with the US Navy’s Air Test & Evaluation Squadron (VX-20) at Patuxent River in Maryland. The second of these has a mission suite installed and has recently begun testing alongside a P-3 to ‘baseline’ the system. “Feedback from our flight test crews was very positive from the first several mission system test events out in Seattle,” according to Programme Manager Captain Mike Moran “It is unique to see the systems performing so well this early in the flight test phase of a program this size, but the investment in our high fidelity weapons system integration lab with flight qualified hardware and software is clearly showing its value. Although we are still early in the flight test program and the majority of flight test events remain ahead of us, this is a very positive first step for the program.”

The initial contract included options to build two extra flight test aircraft and this has been exercised, with the second aircraft currently on the production line. A sixth aircraft has subsequently been added to the programme and two of the test aircraft are static and fatigue test structures and will not fly.

Boeing recently achieved ‘Milestone C’, clearing the way for Low Rate Initial Production in the coming months. The LRIP 1 contract will likely be for six aircraft. Initial deliveries to the US Navy will begin in 2012, ahead of Initial Operating Capability the following year, more than 50 years after the P-3 Orion first entered service.

Boeing sees significant export potential for Poseidon with many operators of legacy platforms, such as the P-3 and Dassault Atlantique looking to replace their fleets. It predicts Australia will begin taking Increment Two aircraft around 2015. Canada is also seen as a near-time customer, with a competition to be held over the next year or so for delivery around the same time as Australia

NORTHROP GRUMMAN MQ-4C GLOBAL HAWK

Formerly known as the RQ-4N, Northrop Grumman’s ‘BAMS’ Global Hawk is a development of the USAF RQ-4B version. The designation has been changed to reflect the multi-mission capability of the naval variant.
"The Navy is leveraging the Air Force investment in the Global Hawk baseline and adding enhancements to the system to meet the Navy's persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirement," said the US Navy’s BAMS Programme Manager, Captain Bob Dishman. "The system will deliver to the warfighter an unprecedented capability to maintain persistent ISR virtually anywhere in the world -24 hours per day / seven days per week."

The US Navy describes the MQ-4C thusly: “(It is) a multi-mission maritime intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance system, which will support a variety of missions while operating independently or in direct collaboration with fleet assets. The system will provide a continuous on-station presence while conducting open-ocean and littoral surveillance of targets.”

It has 35 hour endurance, cruising at 65,000 ft. The MQ-4C is larger than earlier variants of Global Hawk, with more electrical power available to sensors and datalinks and can uplift a 50% heavier sensor load. Sensors include a Northrop Grumman 360-degree mechanically steered AESA radar, Raytheon EO-IR turret and Synthetic Aperture Radar, an L-3 Communications suite and Sierra Nevada Merlin ESM system.

The US Navy intends to acquire a total of 68 MQ-4Cs up to 2019, to be operated from five bases throughout the world. The fuselage of the first air vehicle is currently under construction and flight test of the Systems Design and Development (SDD) aircraft is scheduled to begin in FY2012. IOC (with four air vehicles) is now set at 2016.

Air Force versions of Global Hawk have been in service for some time of course and have been racking up some impressive statistics. Northrop Grumman briefed journalist at this years’ Singapore Airshow on some of its achievements, claiming a monthly flight hour average in combat higher than airline flying typical for Southwest Airlines’ 737s. During Operation Iraqi Freedom the company says that earlier, less sophisticated, versions of Global Hawks flew only five per cent of the high altitude ISR missions, but captured over 55% of the time-sensitive target imagery used to generate strike sorties.

AIR 7000 FUTURE CAPABILITY

What does the Commonwealth get for money and time invested so far in AIR 7000? As far as Phase 2B is concerned, there is an opportunity to influence the outcome of the first development to the baseline P-8A design through the MoU. Known as Increment Two (and before that Spiral One) it is designed to close the gap between the P-8A as initially delivered and the capabilities of current day P-3C and AP-3C platforms.

As noted, this capability is intended to be delivered from 2013 and should be bedded down by the time Australia is ready to take its first aircraft around 2015. A further development (Increment Three/Spiral One) is in the planning stages and is due to reach the fleet in 2018. As a signatory to the MoU, the Commonwealth also has an opportunity to influence this design to some degree. Australian involvement however does not translate into slots on the production line and Boeing says that this will not occur until a formal contract is in place.

Advantages over the current AP-3C are the higher dash and transit speeds (increased by 20% and 31% respectively, according to Boeing brochure figures), higher cruise altitude and reduced cabin noise (and therefore lower fatigue levels) brought about by a turbofan-powered aircraft. Importantly it will not be a unique system and spares and support will be leveraged off the US Navy’s global fleet distribution. As a node in the US Navy’s FORCENet networked vision for the future, it will also provide a similar capability for the ADF.

A development pencilled in for Increment Two is a stand-off torpedo capability in the form of the US Navy’s High Altitude Anti Submarine Weapons Concept (HAAWC), for which Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are respectively developing their LongShot and Fish Hawk concepts. HAAWC is a wing kit that is designed to strap on to the Mk.54 torpedo and allow it to be launched from well outside a submarine or surface vessel’s defensive armament,

Increment Three aircraft may have a MAD capability restored, in the form of the InSitu MagEagle UAV, a version of the successful ScanEagle, currently operated by Australian and coalition troops in Afghanistan but fitted with a MAD system. Current thinking is to carry the MagEagle in either the bomb bay or on the underwing pylons in a compressed carriage container, known as the MagEagle Compressed Carriage (MECC), and air launched. In wartime these could be considered expendable, but would be recovered aboard ship or on land using the unique SkyHook recovery system during peacetime operations.

The downside of the MoU is that it effectively locks the Commonwealth into a US Navy standard aircraft and therefore if it is unable to use its influence in the design stage, will either bear the cost of any Australia-unique equipment alone, or put up with whatever the US Navy decides it wants. Australian aircraft will now be acquired through direct FMS sale and will be, for all intents and purposes, identical to USN examples.

Phase 1B is a little harder to call however. With the decision not to participate in the next stage of the BAMS UAS programme, Australia has effectively foregone any influence it may have had and is now largely a bystander in the programme. With a stated requirement at least ten years away this may not be such a bad thing, as the Project Office can watch developments without any skin in the game - other than the $15 million already committed of course.

According to the ‘Defence Spokesperson’ there are ‘enduring returns’ on the investment made, including “The inclusion of Australian requirements in the MQ-4C specification, which will provide confidence that it will broadly meet Australia’s future needs” and “a greater understanding of the acquisition and operating costs of the system, which has contributed to the fidelity of AIR 7000 Ph1B project and will continue to inform future decisions.”

In summary, it is likely that the P-8A will be acquired as planned, given the expense and difficulty in keeping the AP-3C fleet viable much beyond the 2018 PWD. However the squeeze on the Defence budget caused by the Global Financial Crisis is going to get worse as the decade progresses and some of the major defence acquisition programmes gain traction. Some defence analysts are already warning that Australia cannot afford to fund every programme in the desired timeframe without increasing spending.

One solution already canvassed in earlier issues of APDR, and most recently suggested by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s recent paper on ocean surveillance (‘Putting the “national” into national security: Australia’s maritime surveillance capability’), is the possibility of leasing a High Altitude Long Endurance UAS capability. Defence says however, that there are no plans to consider such a solution.

The AIR 7000 concept, like BAMS, relies on both the persistent wide area surveillance of a HALE UAV system and the flexibility of a manned platform such as Poseidon. It is a holistic solution that without one or the other phase will never achieve the capability outcome desired. In order to ensure that the programme achieves this outcome without having to wait for at least another decade to pass, perhaps it’s time to revisit the possibilities of leasing?
 

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