Australia revises 10-year spending plan

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By Peter La Franchi in Canberra

Australia is to increase budget allocations for its proposed multi-mission endurance unmanned air vehicle requirement to more than A$1 billion ($740 million), but will defer a decision on whether to replace or upgrade its Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft for more than two years. Plans have also been unveiled for a first block upgrade of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Boeing 737 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and to expand support for the service’s Boeing F-18A/B fighters.

Australia’s newly released 10-year defence capability plan proposes acquisitions worth A$51 billion between 2006 and 2016, with 26% of this total to support aviation requirements.

The plan proposes a combined replacement project for the Royal Australian Navy’s Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk and Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite helicopters, although decisions have yet to be made on whether to retain the Seasprites.

Designated Project Air 9000 Phase 8, the effort aims to deliver a common maritime combat helicopter type to enter service between 2017 and 2019 at an expected cost of A$2.5-3.5 billion. It also confirms that final government funding approvals to acquire Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will occur during Australia’s 2008-9 financial year.

The Wedgetail upgrade is forecast as costing up to A$50 million and will provide the aircraft with expanded datalinks and an ability to identify maritime targets. The new capabilities are expected to be operationally available between 2018 and 2020.

An expansion to the RAAF’s current F-18 centre barrel replacement programme will cost A$600-750 million and is intended to ensure sufficient aircraft remain in service until the planned introduction of the JSF. The plan also confirms a proposed A$350-450 million mid-life upgrade to the RAAF’s BAE Systems Hawk 127 lead-in fighter trainers, to be implemented between 2017 and 2019.

The budget increase for the first phase of Australia’s planned Project Air 7000 multi-mission endurance UAV requirement represents a 25% increase on previous 10-year plan provisions of between A$750 million and A$1 billion. Final government approvals are proposed for the 2007-8 financial year, with a restricted tender process expected to be launched next year between General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman.

The deferral of the Project Air 7000 Phase 2 AP-3C replacement or upgrade programme will be offset by a “capability assurance programme” for the Orions worth A$245-330 million over the next five years. A replacement aircraft programme is expected to cost A$3.5-4.5 billion, with final approval to occur from 2011-14 and the new platform to enter service from 2015-17.