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Air 7000 – ISR for the 21st Century
efence’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
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
As a maritime nation, Australia relies heavily on
merchant shipping and has a need to keep tabs
on large areas of coastline and ocean
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