Australia’s 2016 defence whitepaper has shed light on the airpower capabilities Canberra plans to acquire over the next 15 years.
The whitepaper has been greatly anticipated in Australian defence circles, and is tailored to address emerging conventional challenges, such as the increasing assertiveness of China, and unconventional challenges, such as terrorism. The last such whitepaper was published in 2010.
It calls for an additional A$29.9 billion ($21.4 billion) over the next ten years, which will push Australian defence spending to $42.4 billion annually in 2020-21, or two percent of gross domestic.
The whitepaper foresees the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) adding seven more Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft by the late 2020s. Australia has firm orders for eight P-8As, which will be operational in the early 2020s. The additional seven will be obtained in two tranches, bringing the nation’s total P-8A fleet to 15 aircraft by the late 2020s.
The whitepaper also foresees the acquisition of five Gulfstream G550 aircraft from the early 2020s that will be modified for the electronic warfare mission.
“This capability will substantially enhance electronic warfare support to naval, air and land forces for operations in electromagnetic environments manipulated by hostile forces, with the operating cost, range and endurance benefits of a commercial airframe,” says the whitepaper. “The aircraft will be acquired in two tranches and incrementally upgraded to maintain commonality with the United States-developed systems for long-term supportability and to maintain interoperability.”
The five G550s include a pair of G550s Canberra recently obtained to perform electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) duties. These aircraft will undergo modifications with L-3 in Texas. Their ELINT/SIGINT packages will be contracted next year.
The whitepaper also reiterates Canberra will obtain seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicles, which will operate closely with the P-8As. Short-range UAVs will also be obtained to operate from Australian warships.
Also on the cards is a medium-altitude armed UAV capability. The new armed medium-altitude unmanned aircraft will provide enhanced firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to a range of missions including counter-terrorism missions
The whitepaper calls for the possible acquisition of two additional Airbus Defence & Space A330 multi-role tanker transports (MRTT). The RAAF operates five MRTTS under the KC-30A designation. It has firm orders for two more. Should Canberra decide to buy two more, the RAAF could have nine KC-30As by the late 2020s or early 2030s.
Canberra also wants to boost strategic airlift capability. It operates eight C-17s, but with Boeing’s C-17 production line closed it is not apparent how such a requirement could be filled.
The whitepaper discusses fighter aircraft, but for the time being Canberra appears content with existing acquisition plans. These see it operating 12 EA-18G Growler Electronic Warfare aircraft from 2018, adding to its existing 24 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets.
Plans remain underway to replace 71 F-18 “classic” Hornets with 72 Lockheed Martin F-35A joint strike fighters. Based on its experience with the F-35A, Australia will decide on a Super Hornet replacement in the late 2020s.