DEFENCE: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Unmanned aircraft needed to patrol our seas
, April 17, 2010
The rapidly expanding offshore oil and gas fields off Western Australia’s isolated Kimberley and Pilbara regions could be effectively defended by high-flying unmanned aircraft, says Liberal defence spokesman, Senator David Johnston.
He said that acquiring such capability suited Australia’s needs because of our relatively small population and our need to control the vast land and oceanic terrain that extends from the eastern Indian Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean and much of the Great Southern Ocean.
No other country wields jurisdiction over such an extensive segment of the globe’s oceanic and land surface.
Senator Johnston says that the ideal type of unmanned aircraft for the task was Northrop Grumman Corporation’s RQ-4N Global Hawk.
The United States navy has commissioned Northrop to develop what it calls "a persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data collection and dissemination capability that fulfils the maritime war fighter’s requirement for continuous battle-space awareness".
The technical term for the naval use of unmanned high-flying aircraft is Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS).
Senator Johnston says: "Northrop’s Global Hawk is ideally suited to patrolling the North-West of WA because it can survey up to 100,000 sq/km of terrain daily and fly at 65,000 feet for 42 hours without returning to base.
"It is far more cost-effective to use BAMS to safeguard oil and gas infrastructure, as well as monitoring illegal fishing and illegal boat arrivals.
"Unmanned aircraft have also been vital in bushfire management in America, and more recently they were used to assess the damage, within 24-hour real-time images, of the massive earthquake destruction in Haiti."
Isolated off-shore drilling facilities are seen as particularly vulnerable to attacks by pirates, who invariably demand big ransom payments, and by terrorists, who have increasingly dispatched suicide missions aimed at destroying infrastructure.
Senator Johnston says that the Howard Government joined Northrop’s BAMS program in 2006; but the Rudd Government decided, in late 2008, to withdraw.
Says Johnston: "It is hard to know what the Rudd Government is planning to do with the Royal Australian Air Force’s two major western bases — Curtin, near Derby, and Learmonth, on North-West Cape — since the chapter on base closures in the December 2008 Pappas Review had been virtually blacked-out."
In mid-2008, the then Rudd Government defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon commissioned George Pappas, an adviser to the Boston Consulting Group, to assess ‘‘continuing problems with cost overruns, waste and inefficiency’’ within the defence portfolio.
Australia’s collaboration in the US navy’s BAMS program ended after completion of the review.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the reason for the pull-out was unacceptable pressure on the Australian Defence Force due to the parallel replacement of its manned Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft.
"The Australian government has every confidence that the BAMS program will deliver a very capable uninhabited aircraft," he said.
"However, at this stage in the development of the project, it is in Australia’s best interests to not knowingly risk incurring the unmanageable workforce chaos that would result.
"Blindly pushing on with the program would have placed a huge and unnecessary strain on our personnel in trying to potentially manage three separate airframes at the one time.
"The Australian Government has taken swift action to alleviate these transitional issues by declining the option to continue on with further collaboration at this time."
However, Senator Johnston has signalled that a Liberal Government could return to the BAMS program. This would mean an initial take-up of three RQ-4N Global Hawks followed by an additional two.
The US plans operating up to 40 Global Hawks, since they are more cost-effective than surveillance satellites.
These 40 would be based at five sites, including on Hawaii and at its Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, thereby complementing an Australia commitment in both oceans.
And New Zealand has a Global Hawk "watching brief" for surveillance of the Southern Ocean around the nearby Pacific Islands and Antarctica.
Senator Johnston says that if Australia had five RQ-4N Global Hawks, this would equip our air force to be able to back-up Western Australia’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) in combating bushfires and other natural catastrophes, and help with detecting the approach of tsunamis.
"FESA through their control rooms could link in to Global Hawk surveillance and have virtual instantaneous monitoring of such threats," he says.
"The Global Hawks would also be integrated with Royal Australian Navy patrols and other surveillance operations off Australian."
This month saw the 101st so-called asylum-seeker boat slipping through Australian border security to reach Christmas Island.
As soon as it reached the island its captain dialled triple zero to advise that he wished to be "intercepted".
Arrival of the 101 boats has meant 4,450 paying passengers and 230 paid crew have entered Australia’s jurisdiction.
Opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, says: "With each additional person on Christmas Island costing almost $82,000, each boat is an expensive failure.
"The budget has already blown out by $132 million, and by the end of the financial year the Coalition expects it could blow out by a further $250 million."
Equally ominous is the fact that Somalian pirates, during 2009, attacked 214 ships in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia, and succeeded in hijacking 47 boats carrying 867 sailors.
In recent month these pirates have begun relocating their activities to waters off India.
Ship-owners invariably pay several million dollars for release of their ships and crews. Ships carrying iron ore and liquefied natural gas regularly leave Pilbara ports.
If pirates or terrorists ever succeeded in seizing WA’s off-shore oil and gas infrastructure, and threatened to destroy multi-million dollar drilling platforms, this would severely harm Australia’s export-oriented economy.
Senator Johnston argues that a five-strong squadron of Global Hawks could alert RAN patrol craft well in advance of anyone penetrating local waters. This we are incapable of doing, as the undetected Christmas Island arrivals have demonstrated.Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based writer and historian.