Saturday, 6 September 2008

Where is JP129 going?

Defence has cancelled its contract with Boeing Australia under JP129 - Tactical UAV Capability. No word as yet on what will replace the Boeing/IAI MALAT I-View 250-based solution, but Defence sources are talking about getting an alternate solution, possibly a Military Off The Shelf (MOTS) purchase, up as quickly as possible.
A Rapid Acquisition (RA)? Possibly - but they could also go back to the unsuccessful bidders for JP129, BAE Systems/AAI and Thales/Elbit and ask them to refresh their bids. One industry source suggested that the ADF could have a TUAV system flying some time in the second half of 2009 if it pursues a genuine MOTS option, but it would need some help from a friendly government to achieve this.

Whatever acquisition strategy is selected, the operational requirement hasn't changed and the government's sense of urgency is driven by the fact Australian soldiers are currently operating in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq. And who knows what else might happen over the the next 12 months within our region or further afield?

Which makes it all the more astonishing and disappointing that we've come to the present situation. Does anybody remember when JP129 was originally part of Project Air 87? That was back in 1993, when I first started writing about it. That in turn was two years after the ADF and DSTO conducted its first (apparently inconclusive) trials of a UAV system - the IAI Scout, from memory - up in northern Australia, and some 11 years after the Israel Defence Force's mastery of UAV operations came to light following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

The ADF is good at learning lessons from the operational experience of others; and everything we've seen or read over the past decade - DCPs, NCW Roadmaps, Hardened and Networked Armies - has emphasised the centrality of UAVs to the future of the ADF.

But what is the ADF's current inventory of UAVs? Apart from a few Tadiran Skylark handheld UAVs, it is zero. Even the ScanEagle UAVs supporting the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan are operated on a fee for service basis by Boeing. DSTO alone has a small fleet of UAVs which it uses for experimental purposes. This despite the 17 years that have passed since the first ADF trial in 1991, and the extensive use by many of Australia's coalition partners of UAVs in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Army's own exploitation of borrowed Aerosonde UAVs in the Solomon Islands two years ago.

When tenders closed for JP129 in 2006, Defence had a quality field of bidders, including two - BAE Systems Australia/AAI and Thales Australia/Elbit - offering systems which were either in service with one of our key allies in Afghanistan, or ordered by the other for use in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But despite its lack of experience of UAV operations, Defence chose a developmental solution. The Australian Army was to be launch customer for an all-new, developmental UAV model supported by a developmental ground control and exploitation environment.

How are the ADF's operational requirements so different from everybody else's that an off the shelf solution - better still, one that's already in service with or on order for one of our key allies - isn't good enough? What does the ADF know about UAV operations that qualifies it to pursue a developmental solution? When TUAVs are practically a commodity (certainly on the scale and at the tactical level we're talking about here) by what measure was the development risk justifiable? 

And how did the Kinnaird Process allow such a decision to leak through, with such embarrassing consequences for all concerned?

I've written often enough that the ADF has all the pretensions and processes of a super power, but lacks the substance to justify them. The example of JP129 would seem to illustrate my point perfectly.

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