Funding approval for the Australian Army's requirement for an airborne land surveillance system has been delayed until 2004. The project is also likely to be restructured to give priority to a tactical-level unmanned air vehicle purchase ahead of more sophisticated manned or unmanned broad-area surveillance aircraft.

According to project officials, the main drivers behind the possible changes are potential cost savings and dramatically improving technological reliability.

The project had been set for funding approvals in the May 2003 Australian defence budget with an initial tender process proposed to start in late 2002. The one year slippage is likely to result in a final contract award being pushed out until at least 2007.

Australian Defence Force planning for the past two years has included detailed exploration of UAV options, but also examined the possibility of using small manned aircraft to perform tactical surveillance at the "focal area" level. Focal area missions are defined as monitoring the terrain over a radius of up to 100km (60 miles) from key infrastructure or military assets. The broad area mission is intended to monitor areas of up to 300km radius.

According to Major Brendan Dwyer, the Joint 129 project director: "We are, in the main, now looking at the unmanned systems [for the focal area mission]-If you only acquired them first, and went to the broad area [surveillance requirement] later-it is a cheaper way of doing it. That is one option we will be looking at."

Final decisions on project strategy and the priority to be given to a tactical UAV, Dwyer says, will be dependent upon assessments over the next two years of "budgetary risk, schedule risk and technology risk."

Source: Flight International