28 Agustus 2010

Unmanned Patrol Planes Back on Defence Agenda

28 Agustus 2010

Global Hawk UAV (photo : Defense Industry Daily)

DEFENCE has resumed talks with the US about a $1 billion contract to buy the Global Hawk unmanned patrol plane.

The plane could extend the reach of operations against people-smugglers.
While the RAAF would be the operator, the Department of Home Affairs is understood to be keen to access the aircraft's intelligence-gathering capability.
Yesterday, the federal opposition reaffirmed it would make the Global Hawk a top priority if it wins power.

The high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned spy plane would play a major role in border protection, especially the early detection of asylum seeker boats, an opposition defence spokesman said.

The opposition favours buying three at first and then buying the additional five aircraft the Australian Defence Force wants.

Fallout from the global financial crisis was behind the Rudd government's decision last year to withdraw from the Global Hawk program.

RAAF's P-3C maritime patrol aircraft (photo : Williewonker)

Former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon deferred plans to acquire the aircraft until 2019, saying the government's priority had switched to finding a new manned aircraft to replace the RAAF's ageing fleet of P-3C Orion surveillance planes.

But the ongoing surge in asylum-seeker boat arrivals has highlighted the need for better maritime intelligence.

The Global Hawk purchase is regarded as low-risk for the government, because the aircraft system has a proven track record and is in service with the US Air Force and Navy. "The real issue facing both the government and opposition -- whoever they are -- is the imminent emergence of a surveillance capability gap with the retirement of the P3s (Orion surveillance planes) and the introduction into service of the new P8s (Poseidon aircraft)," a senior defence source said.

In an April speech detailing the federal opposition's foreign and defence policies, Tony Abbott said the aircraft also would be used to help protect oil and gas projects on the North West Shelf.

"In a day, a Global Hawk can keep under surveillance 40,000 square nautical miles," he said. "Real-time surveillance and their vast area of coverage should allow much earlier detection and interception of illegal boat arrivals."

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