The US Navy has confirmed ongoing negotiations with Australia to join the Boeing P-8A programme, while a separate decision on taking a similar role in its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) effort is also imminent.
The long-awaited memorandum of understanding on the P-8A, if approved, would allow Australian military and industry personnel to participate in the development of the Spiral 1 version of the 737-based anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft, says Capt Bob Dishman, the USN's BAMS programme manager.
Boeing is scheduled to deliver the first Spiral 1 aircraft to the USN under a $150 million upgrade package in 2015, two years after a version with a baseline mission system based on the 2004 configuration of its Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion fleet enters service.
Australia and Canada declined the USN's invitation in 2005 to invest $300 million to be co-operative development partners in the P-8A programme. India last month signed a $2.1 billion deal for six P-8Is, but will not be involved in the development phase.
It is not clear how much Australia would invest in the Spiral 1 development programme, but Dishman notes that the US military generally seeks to recoup 10% of its development costs through such transactions.
Meanwhile, the USN is expecting a final decision on Australia's role in the BAMS development programme. Canberra has already missed two self-imposed deadlines for making a decision, in November 2008 and January, but its newly installed Rudd government could decide on a BAMS role any day, Dishman says.
The USN signed a $1.1 billion contract with Northrop Grumman in August to develop the RQ-4N Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle for the BAMS requirement. It plans to replace more than 220 P-3Cs with a combination of 108 manned P-8As and 68 RQ-4Ns. Australia's Project 7000 proposes to replace about 20 P-3Cs with at least six RQ-4Ns and perhaps a dozen P-8As.
The RQ-4N will feature a new active electronically scanned array radar called the Northrop multifunction active sensor. In addition to inverse synthetic aperture radar and maritime search modes, Australia also requires a ground moving target indicator mode for the overland mission.
Australian industry could also be tapped to develop a unique interface between the ground control station and the country's system for processing and distributing intelligence data.