Nigel Pittaway visited RAAF Base Edinburgh, home of 92 Wing and the AP-3C Orion force
Delivery of the Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8A Poseidon in November 2016 also marked an important milestone in the drawdown of the country’s Lockheed P-3C Orion force, 38 years after the first aircraft was delivered in 1978.
In fact, Australia’s involvement with the Orion (named after the Great Hunter and son of Poseidon in Greek mythology) goes back even further, to the arrival of the first P-3B in 1968.
Eighteen of the 19 surviving P-3Cs were upgraded to AP-3C standard in the 1990s and Australia’s Orions have also been the beneficiary of continuous incremental upgrades, to the point where they are regarded by their crews as the most capable P-3s in the world today. However, time marches on and the fleet is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain and is now being replaced by a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft each with a potent maritime surveillance capability in the shape of the P-8A Poseidon (in the near future) the unmanned Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton.
The first AP-3Cs retired in 2014 and the first of the RAAF’s two operational maritime patrol squadrons (11 Squadron) has now relinquished its aircraft as it transitions to the Poseidon. All of the AP-3Cs are now consolidated within 10 Squadron and the drawdown will continue apace as further Poseidon deliveries occur. On current planning, the last of the Great Hunters is due to leave service towards the end of 2019.
Australia’s involvement with the Orion goes back to the early 1960s, when plans to replace the ageing Lockheed SP-2E Neptune, then in service with 11 Squadron, began to gain momentum. The Royal Australian Air Force has maintained two maritime patrol squadrons since the end of World War Two. At the time, 11 Squadron was equipped with the SP-2E, whereas 10 Squadron had the recently introduced the SP-2H variant.
The P-3B (the production variant at the time) was selected in November 1964, as part of a major air power modernisation plan that also saw the acquisition of the Dassault Mirage III, Lockheed C-130E Hercules and Aermacchi MB326H. Ten aircraft were ordered and deliveries began in May 1968.
By the early 1970s, with the P-3Bs established in service, the SP-2Hs of 10 Squadron were in turn becoming increasingly obsolescent. Following due consideration, eight more Orions were ordered in May 1975. By this time, the production variant was the P-3C Update II, so once again Australia found itself with two different maritime patrol capabilities, albeit based on the same airframe. The P-3C order was later increased to 10 aircraft and the first aircraft arrived in Australia in May 1978.
By 1980, the wheel had turned full circle once again and consideration of an upgrade or replacement programme for the P-3B began to gain momentum. This eventually resulted in the purchase of a further 10 P-3C aircraft in October 1981 to allow 11 Squadron to re-equip. In December 1984, the first new aircraft arrived at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia, home to the RAAF Orion fleet since the first P-3B was delivered. This second batch of P-3Cs was built to Update II.5 standard. For the first time, both operational maritime patrol squadrons operated aircraft with similar capabilities.
In RAAF service the Orion’s official numbering system prefix is A9, with each batch given a separate range of numbers: -600 for the Update II.5 series aircraft assigned to 11 Squadron and -700 for Update II series aircraft operated (initially at least) by 10 Squadron. The three-digit suffix of the full Australian serial number is adopted from the last three digits of the allocated US Navy Bureau Number: A9- 656 to A9-665 (BuNo 162656 to 162665) and A7-751 to A9-760 (BuNo 160751 to 160760).
Initially, each standard of P-3C was operated as a separate fleet by each squadron. Since conversion to a common AP-3C configuration in the late 1990s, the Orions have operated in a single pool.
To date only one aircraft has been lost in operational service; A9-754 was forced to ditch into shallow water off Cocos Island in April 1991, following the loss of a wing leading-edge panel.
The two operational Orion units, 10 and 11 Squadron, have been maritime patrol squadrons since their formation in the leadup to World War Two in 1939.
With the arrival of the first P-3B, 11 Squadron relocated to Edinburgh from Pearce in Western Australia in 1968. No.10 Squadron moved from Townsville in Queensland and took delivery of the first P-3C.
Both squadrons are part of No.92 Wing, also headquartered at Edinburgh, reporting to the RAAF’s Surveillance and Response Group based at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales. The two squadrons were operated as separate entities, with a shared fleet of updated AP-3Cs from the late 1990s. Training was provided by No.292 Squadron, which also shared aircraft from the pool as required.
No.10 Squadron was formed at Point Cook in Victoria in July 1939. Its personnel were sent directly to the UK to take delivery of Shorts Sunderland flying boats that Australia had ordered. In the event, the process was overtaken by the outbreak of war and the squadron operated the aircraft in the UK as part of RAF Coastal Command. Following disbandment at the end of the war, No.10 Squadron was re-formed as a maritime patrol squadron at Townsville in 1949, initially equipped with the Avro Lincoln and then, from 1962, the SP-2H Neptune, prior to moving to Edinburgh in 1978.
No.11 Squadron was formed at Richmond in New South Wales in September 1939, equipped with two Supermarine Walrus amphibians and two Shorts Empire-class flying boats. The unit re-equipped with the Consolidated Catalina in 1941 and operated in the Pacific Theatre until being disbanded at the end of the war. It re-formed at Rathmines, New South Wales, in 1948, again equipped with the Catalina. The squadron disbanded again and re-formed in 1950, this time at Amberley in Queensland and flying the Avro Lincoln. The squadron moved to Pearce shortly afterwards, followed by Richmond in 1954 to convert to the SP-2E Neptune, and finally to Edinburgh in 1968.
Formally known as Project Air 5276, the Sea Sentinel programme was aimed at upgrading the Orion fleet to a common configuration and ensuring its mission systems remained at the cutting edge of technology. The contract was awarded to E-Systems (later Raytheon Systems) in January 1995. Upon completion of the upgrade each aircraft was redesignated as an AP-3C.
Air 5276 replaced all of the major sensors on board the Orion with the exception of the infrared detection system. New systems integrated included: the Elta EL/M-2022A(V)3 multimode maritime surveillance radar; Elta ALR-2001 electronic support measures; a CAE magnetic anomaly detector; a General Dynamics Canada UYS-503 acoustic system (an earlier version of which was fitted to the Royal Australian’s S-70B-2 Seahawk fleet); dual Honeywell H-764G embedded GPS/ INS; a new communications suite, including UHF, VHF, HF and SATCOM; and the new DDC-060 data management system, a derivative of the Lockheed-Martin ASQ-212.
Australia’s AP-3C prototype upgrade was done by Raytheon in the United States, with first flight in May 1999. The remainder were completed in Australia. However, the programme did not run to schedule, due mainly to delays in software development and difficulties integrating the sensors and systems. The first two AP-3Cs were delivered to Edinburgh in late 2001 and the 18th and final aircraft arrived back with the RAAF in March 2005.
Under a further phase of Air 5276, four former US Navy P-3Bs were acquired for transport and training duties within 92 Wing. Three of the aircraft had mission equipment removed at the Naval Air Depot at Jacksonville in Florida. Each aircraft was redesignated as a TAP-3. The fourth (BuNo 152760) was delivered to Edinburgh and broken down for spares, with its cockpit section later being converted into an operational mission simulator.
TAP-3s A9-434, A9-438 and A9-439 (BuNo 153434, 153438 and 153439) were delivered to No.292 Squadron between 1997 and 1999. All three were withdrawn from service and scrapped at Edinburgh in mid-2008.
Around the time of the AP-3C upgrade, a media report suggested two Orions had also been configured by E-Systems for the electronic intelligence, a configuration that has never been acknowledged by the Australian Government.
All but one of the RAAF’s 19 Orions were upgraded to AP-3C configuration. Aircraft A9-663 was instead used to support testing of systems and tactics to inform the ongoing incremental upgrades under Air 5276 and the capability requirements of the AP-3C replacement programme, dubbed Air 7000 Phases 1B and 2B. Aircraft A9-663 was the first RAAF C-model Orion to be retired and was scrapped in October 2014.
Orion on Operations
Originally acquired to hunt Soviet submarines in the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans during the Cold War, Australia’s Orions were tasked for overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over Afghanistan for almost ten years between 2003 and 2012.
The first aircraft deployed to the Middle East in early 2003 as part of the Australian Defence Force’s Operation Slipper. All Orions deployed to the Middle East were assigned to a 92 Wing Detachment. Both operational squadrons provided personnel to man the detachment until it was withdrawn towards the end of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan in November 2012.
During nine and a bit years, the 92 Wing Detachment conducted over 2,400 missions in support of Australian and coalition ground forces.
In the light of the overland ISR role over the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, where line of sight communications was often significantly restricted by terrain, at least one AP-3C, aircraft A9-660, was modified with a wideband satellite communications capability. According to the RAAF, this capability is now being used to develop a full understanding of the communication links required for the P-8A Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton.
The Orion force has an ongoing commitment to Australia’s border protection as part of Operation Resolute. At least one aircraft is deployed on rotation to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory at any given time. This permanent commitment began in 2006 and is maintained to patrol the seas to the north and north west of the continent for illegal immigration and smuggling operations.
As part of the Five Power Defence Arrangement between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK, the Orion force conducts regular deployments to RMAF Butterworth, under the long-running Operation Gateway. Up to three AP-3Cs can be deployed at any point in time, but the usual effort consists of a single aircraft. One recent mission over the disputed areas of the South China Sea gained international media attention when an aircraft chartered by a BBC news crew heard the Orion being challenged by Chinese authorities over the radio.
One of the problems arising from a decade of overland ISR operations over Afghanistan has been the degradation of some of the high-end anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills. One of the key focus areas for 92 Wing after Operation Slipper concluded has been to rebuild the ASW skill set to meet the increased levels of ongoing undersea threats to surface shipping.
Subsequent phases of Project Air 5276 continue to deliver enhanced capability to the Orion, despite its twilight years. Recent upgrades have added an electronic flight instrument system on the flight deck, upgrades to the electronic support measures system and the Star Safire III high definition electro-optical/infrared imaging system, acoustic and radar system upgrades, addition of Link 16 tactical data link, traffic collision avoidance system and crash data recorder, and an electronic warfare selfprotection suite. The latter comprises the BAE Systems ALE-47 countermeasures dispensing system and the Airbus Defence AAR-60 missile approach warning system.
Prior to 11 Squadron’s transition to the P-8A in November, the final Orion Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Nigel Ward said the AP-3C is still a very capable platform, but it lacks the sensor fusion and systems integration inherent in modern aircraft such as the Poseidon. Wg Cdr Ward previously flew Nimrods in the Royal Air Force, including time as the Executive Officer on 42(R) Squadron, the Nimrod Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Kinloss, and has extensive experience in the maritime patrol world. He told AIR International: “Our AP-3C is still the most effective maritime patrol P-3 on the planet. I don’t think that’s an unsubstantiated claim; it is a very effective aircraft. During a recent deployment in support of Operation Gateway I was struck by just how effective the aircraft was in doing its job. The mission systems are excellent and very capable, [but] they are standalone legacy systems. As a weapons system, the P-3 is showing its age in comparison to modern weapons systems such as the P-8. I love flying the Orion and would fly it every day if I could. It’s a wonderful aircraft and is really well maintained, but time moves on.”
The typical 12-person AP-3C crew consists of a captain, co-pilot and flight engineer on the flight deck; immediately aft of the cockpit are workstations for the tactical co-ordinator on the left and navigator on the right. Behind them in the centre of the main cabin on the left is the electronic support measures operator and the tactical rail of five workstations used by a sensor employment manager, two wet acoustics and two dry electronic support measures sensor operators. A second flight engineer is part of the crew on long missions to provide backup. Since 11 Squadron’s to the Poseidon, 10 Squadron is now home to the last flight engineers in the RAAF.
In 2014, the RAAF Orion fleet reduced to 16 aircraft. Other aircraft will be retired on a regular basis, as more P-8As are delivered. The challenge now facing 92 Wing is working up the Poseidon as a combat-ready platform, while simultaneously retaining a viable AP-3C capability until the type’s retirement in 2019.
Wg Cdr Ward underlined the AP-3C still has a significant role to play and will remain 92 Wing’s principal warfighting aircraft well into 2018: “The aircraft will remain as the operational aircraft until the P-8A is declared fully operational. Then the AP-3C wrap-up process will begin in earnest.”
The Australian Government Defence Portfolio Budget Statement released in May 2016 forecasts AP-3C annual flying hours to decrease incrementally from 6,770 hours in the financial year 2015– 2016 to just 600 hours in 2019–2020.
When the final Orion is withdrawn from service it will close a chapter in the RAAF’s maritime surveillance history that began with the arrival of the first P-3B in 1968. At that point, after more than 51 years protecting Australia’s maritime approaches, the Great Hunter will pass into welldeserved retirement.