• Credit: Nigel Pittaway
    Credit: Nigel Pittaway

A RAAF Boeing P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission Aircraft has been flying what Defence calls “maritime surveillance” missions from Singapore since mid-October, with data from flight tracking websites suggesting these take place over the South China Sea.

This is the sixth deployment of RAAF aircraft to Paya Lebar airbase in Singapore since July 2020 and the first using the P-8A. Previous occasions have seen RAAF Lockheed-Martin AP-3C (EW) Orion Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (ISREW) aircraft being deployed, with each lasting approximately one month. 

Flight tracking data shows that the P-8A, serialled A47-009, arriving in Singapore from RAAF Base Edinburgh via Darwin on the 18th of October and flying missions out of Paya Lebar between two to five days a week from the 20th, using the callsign Aussie 206, 207, 208 or 209. 

The missions usually last between seven to eight hours, with most of the missions starting off in the late morning local time and ending before sunset. 

However there have been at least two missions that took place after dark as of the time of writing, with one of these being an overnight 14-hour mission that started at 6.30pm on the 11th of November and ending at 8.30am the next morning. 

The P-8 has been supported by a RAAF Airbus KC-30A tanker on at least some of its missions, with flight data showing a KC-30 tanker flying nine-hour missions that took it to the South China Sea off Brunei on the 5th, 8th and 11th of November, at the same dates and roughly the same time as the P-8s. Data on earlier dates were not available. 

The flight trackers also show the aircraft departing Paya Lebar northbound and flying up the east coast of peninsular Malaysia before turning to the north-northeast towards the South China Sea on all the days it had been flying. 

The P-8 would turn off its transponder upon leaving Malaysian airspace and turning it on again just before return. In contrast, the RAAF AP-3C (EW) Orions did not normally turn on the transponders during their missions when deployed to Singapore, although it was noted that their missions lasted about 10 hours each.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defence told ADM that the RAAF is flying maritime surveillance missions from Singapore under the auspices of the Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), which it says allows both militaries access to each other’s bases.

The CSP signed in 2016 also saw both countries agreeing to "enhance intelligence and information-sharing in areas of mutual interest."

Defence told ADM that “maritime surveillance patrols are conducted by the ADF as part of its mission to protect Australia and its national interests, and to contribute to regional security. These flights are conducted within Australian and international airspace. ADF aircraft operate from remote Australian airfields and from those of partner nations.” 

The above was sent in response to a series of specific questions sent by ADM about the deployment, including why the missions were not flown with the P-8 deployed to Butterworth in Malaysia under Operation Gateway and why the AP-3C(EW), which has a specific intelligence gathering mission set, was used for the Singapore missions.

Although Defence added in its response that it “does not disclose the specific focus of maritime domain awareness missions," the duration of the P-8A missions and the direction it is flying before its transponder is turned off suggests that its focus is on the South China Sea.

Based on the typical cruise speeds of civilian airliners (the P-8A is of course based upon a Boeing 737 airliner) it would take a little over two hours each way to and from the southernmost of the disputed Spratly Islands from Singapore, leaving it with two to three hours of flight time over the islands.

The longer AP-3C(EW) mission duration could simply be a result of its slower speed, meaning it took a longer time to transit to the area of interest, and its use on the Singapore missions suggests these are not typical “maritime domain awareness” missions. 

The AP-3C(EW), which is one of two aircraft assigned to 10 Sqn based at Edinburgh and are part of 42 Wing and the RAAF’s Surveillance and Response Group. The aircraft were deployed to Singapore in July and October 2020 as well as February, April and August this year.

Flight tracking data also showed that an RAAF P-8A also made flights from Darwin to and from the South China Sea on at least two occasions in June this year, while another aircraft was noted operating from Bandar Seri Begawan in late June and early July, heading northwest before turning off its transponder.

The RAAF has been flying maritime domain awareness missions in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean since 1980 as part of Operation Gateway. One such flight in 2015 was caught on a BBC audio recording being challenged by Chinese military personnel as it flew in the vicinity of a Chinese-held feature in the Spratly islands.

The Spratly islands are the subject of a six-way territorial dispute involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan and is also (in)famous for China’s Great Wall of Sand, where it has reclaimed reefs and turned them into island bastions with airbases, harbours, missiles, radars, and other sensors.

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