• CEO of the Cocos-Keeling Islands Shire Andrea Selvery gives Commander Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen a tour of the islands.
    CEO of the Cocos-Keeling Islands Shire Andrea Selvery gives Commander Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen a tour of the islands. Defence

Defence is moving ahead on plans to upgrade the Cocos/Keeling Islands airport to support P8-A Poseidons, a move that would allow the aircraft to patrol significant stretches of the northern Indian Ocean.

An industry information session was held in Perth outlining the works required to allow the airport to accommodate the aircraft. This includes runway, taxiway and apron strengthening, widening, airfield ground lighting refurbishment, and ‘various compliance works’ under Project 8129.

The $100-$200 million project, noted in the 2016 Defence White Paper, remains subject to government and Parliamentary approval.

RAAF regularly operated AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft from Cocos Island, which have a wingspan of 30.8 metres and a maximum weight of 61,200 kg. The Poseidons, however, are significantly wider (37.6 metres) and heavier (85,820 kg), necessitating runway expansion and pavement strengthening.

A wider runway might open the possibility of deploying the new MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime patrol aircraft to Cocos Island, which have a similar wingspan to Poseidons. The far greater endurance of the Triton would represent a significant step-up in Defence’s ability to conduct maritime patrol missions over virtually the entire Indian Ocean, which is seeing an increase in Chinese naval activity in recent years.

However, the Triton’s significant wingspan makes the fuel stored within vulnerable to the tropical heat, meaning operations would likely require a sun shelter in addition to permanent facilities for the launch and recovery crew. Defence’s response to ADM suggests this is not planned under Project 8219.

“The upgrade will not include new buildings or shelters,” a spokesperson said. “The length of the runway will remain at 2,441 metres. The shoulder will increase from 3.5 to 7.5 metres.”

Defence also said that no P8-A support personnel would be permanently based at the airport, but did not mention staff for other aircraft (such as the M-55A Peregrine EW planes).

“The existing supporting infrastructure at the airport is currently sufficient to support P-8A Poseidon operations,” the spokesperson said. “There will not be any P-8A Poseidon aircraft permanently based at Cocos Island, therefore there is no requirement to base P-8A Poseidon support staff there permanently.”

The move supports the operational role of the two aircraft, with the Triton acting as loitering surveillance and the P-8A as the response asset.

An improved airstrip on Cocos Island will also allow Australian P-8As (and possibly M-55As) to patrol much closer to India’s area of interest. Canberra has been seeking to improve defence relations with New Delhi through participation in multilateral military exercises such as AUSINDEX and Pitch Black, deployments like Indo-Pacific Endeavour, and high-level political visits. New Delhi, however, has repeatedly denied Australian requests to participate in Exercise Malabar, which it holds alongside the US and Japan, for fear of provoking China.

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