Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA Graham Warwick and Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC
An Australian request to US defence companies for data relating to stealth technology as part of their bids to secure a major airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) deal is at the heart of the latest in a string of investigations conducted by the US Government into alleged leaks of classified military data to foreign governments.
The issue has become one of the hottest in Washington in recent months, primarily as US concerns about the loss of space and military know-how to the Chinese recently led to a fundamental change in export licensing procedures for satellite makers.
Two of the AEW&C bidders, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, have been exonerated by the investigation into Low Observable/ Counter Low Observable technology leaks (LO/CLO), but the role of Boeing, which ultimately won the $1.9 billion contract, continues to be examined.
If the US giant is found guilty it could face heavy fines, or even a temporary ban on bidding for foreign AEW contracts, although it is unlikely there will be a conclusion to the affair before the award expected later this month of a big Turkish AEW&C contract being fought over by Boeing and the Israeli industry.
The problems facing Boeing can be traced to last November, when Boeing personnel working on Australia's AEW&C requirement meet officials of Canberra's Defence Acquisition Organisation to review progress on a funded risk reduction study, better known in the project circles as an Initial Design Activity (IDA).
Boeing, and its two rivals were all awarded IDA study contracts by Australia's Defence Acquisition Organisation in January last year, with data set to form part of their final bid submissions.
The IDA contracts required the contenders to detail how their proposals would meet a range of Royal Australian Air Force requirements, including the provision of what one source describes as very sensitive LO/CLO data.
According to other sources, the level of capability sought by Australia in relation to the LO/CLO capability is surprising given the relative absence of stealth threats in South-East Asia.
Within days of the November meeting, Boeing is understood to have been approached by US Department of Defense officials concerned about what LO/ CLO data may have been revealed. The trigger for those approaches is unclear, but may relate to nothing more sinister than US awareness of Australian requirements in the stealth area.
A number of sources suggest that the USA may also have been alerted as a result of US Air Force technical assessments of the capabilities of the Northrop Grumman Multirole Electronically Scanned Array radar being offered as part of the Boeing 737 aircraft and its AEW&C mission systems.
On 27 January, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon submitted their final proposals to Australia. Almost simultaneously, the Pentagon began formal investigations of whether the contenders had complied with export controls relevant to LO/CLO technology.
On 8 February, the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) wrote to the contenders requesting them to submit within 10 days a copy of their full technical proposal, including classified portions, provided to the Australians in response to their Wedgetail project IDA.
Later that month, Australia's AEW&C project office wrote to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to advise that it was aware of the DTRA request, and to caution that intellectual property generated during the IDA process was owned by the Australian Government. Permission was also given for the release of that intellectual property for scrutiny by Pentagon investigators. By the end of the month Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are understood to have been cleared by the Pentagon.
In March, the head of the Australian AEW&C project office, Group Capt Paul Ekin-Smith and the head of the nation's Defence Acquisition organisation, Garry Jones, met Pentagon officials in Washington to discuss how US policy on LO/CLO should be interpreted by Australia.
The issue was also raised between Jones and US undersecretary for defence acquisition and technology Paul Gansler at the inaugural meeting of the Australia-USA Ministerial Defence Acquisitions Committee held in Washington in April.
According to Australian Defence Department sources, the Pentagon followed up the April meeting offering a framework for future Australian access to sensitive US technology, including technology release for Wedgetail.
In late July, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency sources confirmed that the Boeing element of the investigation was still active and a final report was close to completion. The sources also said that a further review of the investigation may be conducted.
Australian officials have moved to downplay the significance of the investigation, including the fact that it was instigated specifically in relation to Project Wedgetail.
Chief of the Australian Air Force Air Marshal Errol McCormack told the Australian media on 21 July that despite the investigation, the US Government had given assurances there will be no detriment to availability of the equipment or the systems.
While Australia has a longstanding security arrangement with the USA, at least part of the underlying Pentagon concerns about the alleged release of LO/CLO data by Boeing relates to whether the Australian Department of Defence has passed that information to other nations. The focus of those concerns include the competition in Turkey and any resurrected competition in South Korea
Source: Flight International