In February the Abbott Government formally approved the purchase of eight Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, with an option for another four, to replace the existing 18 AP-3C Orions. The first Poseidon is expected to achieve initial operating capability in 2017, with the eighth in 2021.

This was followed in March with approval to buy up to seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial Systems, the final number and entry dates to be decided after release of next year’s Defence White Paper.

While the Royal Australian Air Force is exploring how the airframes will work together and with other Australian military assets, Border Protection Command has, by default, been handed perhaps the most capable strategic combination of airframes in the world for policing of Australia’s far-flung Exclusive Economic Zone. For the first time, Australia will have the aerial assets to patrol its isolated Southern Ocean territories, including Heard and McDonald Islands and Antarctica.

The P-8A will bring a step change in capability over the existing AP-3C Orion fleet, both in its faster transit speed and its ability to refuel in flight from the RAAF’s Airbus KC-30 tanker transports, giving it a publicly acknowledged endurance of more than 20 hours. More than enough for a meaningful sortie to Australia’s Patagonian tooth fish grounds around Heard Island, 4200km south west of Perth, or to monitor potential illegal whaling in Australia’s Antarctic territory. The ability to refuel in flight will give the P-8A the ability to not only reach these areas, but also to spend time on station at low altitude, providing a visible, consistent but unpredictable presence to deter illegal activity.

The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton is slower than the P3, but with published endurance of more than 24 hours (quoted at up to 33 hours in some quarters), it has Antarctic range and the ability to cover an area the size of Western Australia in a single sortie. And this, according to Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) senior analyst Dr. Andrew Davies, is best use of the asset for BPC.

“The ability of Triton to fly at high altitude and have hours on station down in southern latitudes will be really valuable,” he said. “In fact that’s where the real value to ocean policing is and it’s not the sort of near region, stuff, it’s the far region stuff.”

Northrop Grumman’s executive for Triton in Australia, Dennis Hayden, also believes the platform’s ability to stay on station and shadow a suspect vessel, or “stare” at a given area of the earth’s surface (for example, an east-west patrol line straddling the main entry points of illegal immigrant vessels to Australian waters off Australia’s north west coast), will offer efficiencies that are change our concept of operations.

“I think the users are going to see persistence almost as a sensor in and of itself,” he said. “When you’re out there continually, with a very small number of Tritons that continually operate 24/7, in some cases close to indefinitely, you know that ‘trip wire’ per se is going to be quite persistent and you can detect patterns, for example, of some of the vessels in the area. So I think we’re entering, to some degree a new era or new paradigm of how we view maritime patrol.”

Triton’s design is acknowledgement that maritime patrol, particularly with civil fisheries or border protection in the mix, cannot be performed exclusively from high altitude. Fisheries and illegal immigration duties in particular are often a “whites of their eyes” exercise where the product is not data to prosecute a military operation, but evidence of law breaking that would stand up in court. That means descending to altitudes where optical sensors can both positively identify a vessel by registration and also clearly record suspect activity, such as fishing nets in the water, or groups of people huddled under a tarpaulin.

In this, Triton is a different beast than its Global Hawk sibling. Its strengthened wings and fuselage, de-icing system and lightning protection are designed to make descent through cloud safe and repeatable. Hayden declined to indicate exactly how low the Triton could be expected to operate routinely, citing concerns about revealing details of any RAAF concept of operations. But he did say the recently touted 10,000-foot lower operating altitude was conservative.

“It is safe to say that Triton was built to operate at a variety of altitudes, get under the cloud layer and fully utilise the EO/IR electro optical system. The capability of the EO/IR system is much better than just a regular camera, so 10,000 feet works,” he said.

But it is apparent that the P-8A, with its airframe specifically strengthened for 60-degree banked turns and overwater operations at 200 feet, will be the low level eyes of the pair when working together.

In reality, the Royal Australian Air Force provides a relatively small percentage of the overall aerial surveillance for BPC.  The vast majority is conducted under contract by Cobham Aviation Services with 10 Bombardier Dash8 aircraft, modified with Raytheon’s SV2022 radar, a Wescam MX-15 electro-optical turret and comprehensive communications and data transfer suites.

While the P3s were nominally allocated 250 flying hours per year on border protection tasks, Cobham’s Dash8s fly more than 12,000. Even in 2011, with Operation Resolute in full swing, the AP-3Cs were forecast to provide 1850 hours for the year, against more than 18,000 hours of contracted aircraft.

For Andrew Davies, BPC’s reason for being will change little when Poseidon and Triton enter service. Although the new airframes will excel at long range surveillance, they will still be tasked according to priority.

“It depends on what is considered the priority of the day,” he said. “I could imagine that if the government heard that 12 boats full of asylum seekers had pushed out from Indonesia, that Triton would be doing border protection duties that day.”

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