CANBERRA OBSERVED: by our national correspondentNews Weekly
MH370 disaster highlights maritime surveillance weaknesses
, April 12, 2014
The role of Australian maritime aircraft and naval vessels in the search for the lost Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean highlights the continued need for Australia’s defence forces to be capable of operating far beyond Australia’s coastline.
As shown in this search, Australia is required to project a presence, and at times conduct peace-keeping operations, within a wide arc from the central Indian Ocean to Antarctica and then out into the Pacific Ocean.
It also contributes to major international operations, including deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as meeting regional security challenges, as happened in East Timor in 1999, the Solomon Islands in 2003, and elsewhere.
Australia was able to play the lead role in the air-search operation because the defence force possesses a small fleet of 18 long-range Orion aircraft, based in South Australia.
The Orions are deployed around the country for maritime surveillance operations, including interception of intruders into Australia’s territorial waters, anti-smuggling operations, protection of the major gas infrastructure off the North-West shelf, and reconnaissance for boats carrying asylum-seekers from Indonesia.
Four of them were used in the search for the missing Malaysian aircraft.
As it was, flotsam believed to be from the crash was located near the limit of the Orion’s operational range.
The Orions first came into service in Australia in 1978, and more aircraft were ordered in the 1980s. Since then, they have been substantially modified and upgraded, to the point where they are still regarded as among the most effective maritime surveillance aircraft in the world.
The latest upgraded aircraft have been in operation since 1999, but, due to their ageing components and airframe (that is, the fuselage, wings and undercarriage), are due to be phased out over the next four years.
It is highly unlikely that Australia would have been able to play such an effective role had the problem emerged further away — further into the Indian Ocean, in the South Pacific or nearer Antarctica, for example.
Without a credible Australian presence, these vast tracts of water would be virtually unoccupied, except for the occasional transit of cargo and container vessels.
The government has announced plans to replace the Orions with up to a dozen Boeing P-8 Poseidons and six to eight Triton unmanned aerial vehicles between 2015 and 2018. All of them offer next-generation technology, but there may well be problems with their deployment in Australia.
The Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft is a modern version, having first flown in 2009. A U.S. Navy Poseidon has been used in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
It has a proven airframe, being based on Boeing’s well-known commercial aircraft, the 737. However, Australia’s requirement for specialised surveillance and telecommunications equipment, and for longer-range operations, may delay its deployment.
Deliveries are due to begin in 2017, when the Orions will already be in the process of being phased out. There may well be a serious operational deficit between the retirement of the Orions and the deployment of the Poseidons.
The future of the Triton unmanned drones is even more problematic. Although some test flights have been conducted in the U.S. over the past year, and the drone has the remarkable capacity to remain aloft for up to 30 hours, none has yet been deployed by the U.S. Navy. Moreover, there are reports that the U.S. Navy has delayed development of its vital “search and avoid” radar system, to enable drones to avoid other aircraft.
Some Australian customs officers have also expressed doubts whether the high-flying Triton could detect and track small boats sailing into Australian waters, particularly where there is cloud cover.
The other important lesson for Australia in the search for MH370 has been discovering the importance of having ocean-going naval vessels capable of conducting effective sea-search operations. The demands of operating far out to sea are currently beyond the capability of Australia’s border-protection fleet which consists of patrol boats.
Fortunately, Australia has an Indian Ocean naval base near Perth, from where HMAS Success could be deployed.
However, HMAS Success is far from ideal for this purpose. It is a fleet-supply ship whose function is to support other naval vessels.
Despite the best efforts of its crew and the Royal Australian Navy, HMAS Success has limited capabilities for the complicated task of attempting to find objects scattered across or below the surface of the ocean. It can carry just one helicopter and a single landing-craft, without specialised search, detection, recovery and rescue equipment.
Both helicopters and ship-launched search-and-rescue boats are vital for this work.
It is not surprising that, in the first week of being in the search area, HMAS Success was unable to find any of the items photographed by satellites or seen from the air.
Unless wreckage from the missing flight can be pinpointed, and the crash site thereby narrowed, it is highly unlikely that the aircraft’s black-box flight-recorder — which captures vital aircraft system flight data to identify the cause of the tragedy — will be found.