Northrop Grumman believes Australia may return to the US Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance programme once Canberra releases its Defence White Paper, which is expected in April.
Australia pulled out of BAMS, which is based on Northrop's RQ-4N Global Hawk, in February, citing unacceptable pressure on its defence forces. Canberra first began to participate in the co-operative development of a multi-mission unmanned air system capability via BAMS in 2006, with initial operational capability originally targeted for fiscal year 2013.
However, a slip in the programme now means that the system's earliest possible in-service date is 2015, around the same time that a new manned surveillance aircraft will replace Australia's Lockheed Martin AP-3Cs.
"The defence minister's statement says that there is an opportunity to stay engaged. We are interested in understanding the government's position. We would like to see if there are other opportunities to stay engaged after the White Paper is released. I hope that this statement merely changes the Australian BAMS timeline," says Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman BAMS programme vice-president.
Northrop Grumman BAMS UAS
"However, while there are options for staying close and in the frame, the cost for joining later in the programme is definitely much higher," he adds.
Northrop sources believe that the White Paper will spell out a future requirement for unmanned surveillance capability, although some industry officials believe Australia may decide to go for a lower-cost medium-altitude UAV, rather than the more expensive aircraft that will emerge from the BAMS programme. That could open the way for companies from Europe and Israel to push their products to Australia in the coming years, add the sources.
The company remains confident about the export prospects for the aircraft, citing interest from Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore, as well as several European nations.