More advanced maritime patrol aircraft could soon be on Australia's horizon and, in a separate development, the country is poised to issue a request for tender (RFT) for new primary trainers.

“We're looking at making a decision sometime in the next two years, and in 2018, to start getting the first ones,” says Australia's air chief, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, referring to the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) need for advanced maritime patrol aircraft to replace 19 Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orions. Australia's defense department agreed last October to help with further development of the Boeing P-8A with a view to ordering the aircraft eventually.

The plan is to replace the AP-3Cs over an 18-month period and then start adding unmanned aerial vehicles, says Brown. The manned aircraft are the first priority because “the P-8 can do everything that the P-3 can, but the UAV can't,” he says. “However, what the UAV gives us is more advanced surveillance capability.” Bigger UAVs such as the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, for example, can cover larger areas, he notes.

The RAAF plans to operate the UAVs for lengthy periods of time to achieve more constant surveillance coverage. If the UAV detects something, a manned aircraft will be called in to investigate, says Brown.

Lockheed Martin has a life-extension program for the P-3s, but Brown argues that the type has become too difficult and costly to maintain: “The P-3 has quite advanced avionics. But as a platform goes, its becomes more unreliable, and availability has gone down.”

Some industry observers suggest it makes sense to base the future fleet of P-8s in Darwin or northwest Australia, in order to monitor the littoral zones there. The AP-3C aircraft are based at RAAF Base Edinburgh near Adelaide, South Australia.

However, Brown says the P-8s will likely be based at Edinburgh to avoid logistical problems such as the increased cost and difficulty of getting personnel to work at a base in the north/northwest. He says the air force has proven with the AP-3Cs that aircraft based at Edinburgh can deploy to Darwin and Learmonth, a northwestern coastal town. There is no limit to how long an aircraft can be deployed away from its main base, other than when it is due for heavy maintenance, says Brown.

Maritime patrol is a priority, Brown emphasizes. “People think of Australia as static and that it's all about defending Australia. But people need to realize that half of our GDP comes from exports and imports. Therefore, regional stability is very important to us and our ability to trade is important. That's why we've always had a maritime strategy.”

In addition to the maritime patrol aircraft, the RAAF is looking to procure primary trainers. A draft RFT has been written and the air force is receiving feedback from industry before issuing the final RFT later this year. The RAAF's system for training pilots was developed in the early 1980s and needs to change, Brown says. Moreover, Australia has two types of propeller-driven trainer aircraft, the Pacific Aerospace CT4 and the Pilatus PC-9, but should cut back to one type, because trainers these days are all reconfigurable, he says.

The new aircraft for this role needs to be fast, too. “Whatever trainer aircraft you select, it needs to have a good range of speed,” Brown says. “If it doesn't, then it will be too much of jump for when the pilots migrate to jets. The primary trainer needs to be able to do above 250 kt. That's the bottom line.”

Australia recently ordered 10 Alenia C-27Js to boost its air-lift capability. The first batch is on the production line in Italy, and Australia is due to receive the first lot in late 2014. The aircraft will initially operate out of RAAF Base Richmond, but the air force aims to base them at RAAF Base Amberley eventually. It will need government funding to upgrade Amberley to handle the C-27Js, though, says Brown. The engineering infrastructure is already in place at Richmond, which was home to the air force's C-130Hs, which have since been replaced by C-130Js. The RAAF also operates C-17s.

That means the only other airlift yet to be secured is a new fleet of VIP aircraft to ferry Australia's prime minister and other politicians. The leases on the Bombardier Challenger 600s and Boeing Business Jets start expiring in 2016. Brown says he would prefer to acquire new VIP aircraft that would be more reliable than older ones. “At the moment, we are looking at extending the leases,” he says, although this depends on what the leasing companies have to offer.