Peter La Franchi/WILLIAMTOWN

The number of Boeing 737-700 "Wedgetail" airborne early warning and control aircraft to be acquired by the Australian Air Force is in doubt as a result of budget pressures, but a deal will proceed, says Royal Australian Air Force chief Air Marshal Errol McCormack.

McCormack also expects to finalise a contract for a replacement airspace command and reporting system with Boeing Australia, despite negotiations being suspended late last year.

The final number of AEW&C aircraft, McCormack says, "will be up to the negotiations and they will start shortly. I wouldn't like to put a definitive number on anything like that yet."

When Boeing was selected as preferred supplier last July, defence minister John Moore said the deal would be for seven aircraft. Australian Department of Defence (DoD) estimates suggest seven aircraft and support facilities would cost A$3.4 billion ($2 billion).

The on-going Australian Defence Force budget crisis has prompted widespread speculation that AEW&C aircraft numbers could fall to four, or be purchased as a phased buy with at least three aircraft being deferred. The project faces a major hurdle over the next three weeks to secure funding in the 2000-1 defence budget, to be released on 10 May.

Any funding deferral would push contract finalisation back until at least August next year. The Australian DoD is considering awarding Boeing an interim risk reduction study for August 2000-August 2001 as a means of maintaining project momentum.

The Australian DoD suspended negotiations with Boeing Australia late last year for the Project Air 5333 "Vigilare" airspace command and reporting system after failing to secure US State Department approvals for release of source code and processing algorithms.

Boeing Australia was selected as the preferred supplier for the ground-based system in September 1998, but featured a proposal in its AEW&C bid to include Air 5333 development as a common system. McCormack says the RAAF is seeking "as much commonality as possible" between the projects.

An Australian Defence Acquisition Organisation official says that while Boeing intends to manage the projects as a common entity, planning calls for separate contracts.

The official adds that ongoing releasability problems mean that Air 5333 contract completion is now dependent on the final schedule for Wedgetail, delaying the former until at least mid 2001.

As an interim step Boeing Australia may be funded to carry out a further nine month advanced requirements analysis.

Source: Flight International