Standing up the P-8/Triton Maritime Domain Strike Enterprise in Australia: Visiting RAAF Edinburgh


2017-04-24 By Robbin Laird

During my latest visit to Australia, I had a chance to visit South Australia and RAAF Edinburgh, which is near Adelaide.

At Adelaide, the Australian Navy will be building its new submarines and at RAAF Edinburgh the Aussies are standing up the other key element of their 21st century ASW capabilities, namely, the core P-8/Triton base.

I visited RAF Lossiemouth where the Brits are standing up their P-8 base and both the Aussies and the Brits are building 21st century infrastructure to support their new fleets of aircraft.

And certainly there will be cross learning between the two air forces as both face similar and large operating areas working with the USN and other ASW partners.

Australia is a cooperative partner in the P-8, somewhat similar to an F-35 partnership so are developing capabilities from the ground up with the USN.

And because they are a cooperative partner, FMS buyers will pay a fee to both the USN and the RAAF.

At Lossiemouth I discussed the new infrastructure with key RAF officials responsible for the effort, and that interview will be published later but the key role of standing up new infrastructure to support this effort is crucial to handle the new data rich airplanes, as well as the work with allies in operating the assets.

Having visited Norway earlier this year and having discussed among other things, the coming of the P-8 and the F-35 in Norway, it is clear that what happens on the other side of the North Sea (i.e., the UK) is of keen interest to Norway.

And talking with the RAF and Royal Navy, the changes in Norway are also part of broader UK considerations when it comes to the reshaping of NATO defense capabilities in a dynamic region.

The changes on the UK side of the North Sea are experiencing the standup of a P-8 base at Lossie, which will integrate with US P-8 operations from Iceland and with those of Norway as well.

In effect, a Maritime Domain Awareness highway or belt is being constructed from the UK through to Norway.

A key challenge will be establishing ways to share data and enable rapid decision-making in a region where the Russians are modernizing forces and expanded reach into the Arctic.

What was clear from discussions at Lossie is that the infrastructure is being built from the ground up with broader considerations in mind, which I am calling, building a 21st century MDA highway.

To the South, at Marham and Lakenheath, the UK and the US are shaping would clearly be an integrated operational capability reaching to Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Flying the same ISR/C2/strike aircraft, the challenge will be similar to what will be seen in crafting the MDA highway as well – how best to share combat data in a fluid situation demanding timely and effective decision-making?

The UK is clearly a key player in shaping the way ahead on both, investing in platforms, infrastructure and training a new generation of operators and maintainers as well.

In this sense, the UK-US-Norwegian-Danish-Dutch interoperability will be a foundation for shaping 21st century security in the region.

It is as much about the US learning with the allies as the allies learning from the United States.

And at the heart of this learning process are the solid working relationships among the professional military in working towards innovative concepts of operations.

This is a work in progress that requires infrastructure, platforms, training and openness in shaping evolving working relationships.

The RAF is building capacity in its P-8 hangers for visiting aircraft such as the RAAF, the USN, or the Norwegian Air Force to train and operate from Lossiemouth.

The Australians are building a very interesting structure to support their P-8s and Tritons.

The graphic below shows the overall facility being constructed at RAAF Edinburgh.

The P-8 and Triton integrated facility being built at RAAF Edinburgh, near Adelaide in South Australia. Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence

At the heart of the enterprise is a large facility where Triton and P-8 operators have separate spaces but they are joined by a unified operations centre.

It is a walk through area, which means that cross learning between the two platforms will be highlighted.

This is especially important as the two platforms are software upgradeable and the Aussies might well wish to modify the mission systems of both platforms to meet evolving Australian requirements.

I had a chance to discuss the standup of the facility with Wing Commander Mick Durant, Officer Temporary Commanding 92 Wing, Wing Commander David Titheridge, Commanding Officer 11 Squadron and Wing Commander Gary Lewis, , Deputy Director P-8 and Triton Transition.

Question: Obviously, you are working with the USN in standing up these two platforms. Could you describe that working relationship?

Answer: We’ve got an incredibly tight connection with the USN at the moment.

In fact, they’re doing all of our initial transition training.

So they’re taking our current P-3 aviators and converting them to P-8 in Jacksonville through the VP-30 training system.

There’s an enduring connection, which everybody’s going to benefit from in the long run.

We are P-3 operators and you need to realize that we developed indigenously a significant set of upgrades on our AP-3Cs that are not on the US P-3Cs.

In fact, some of these upgrades provided functionality in sensors that are similar to what we have so far on the P-8.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8A Poseidon, A47-001 fly’s in formation with a current AP-3C Orion over their home Base of RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia. In an Australian first, a Neptune, Catalina, AP-3C Orion and P-8A Poseidon aircraft have flown over Adelaide together to mark the start of a new era for the Royal Australian Air Force. Representing four generations of aircraft flown by Number 11 Squadron, the aircraft have flown over Adelaide to celebrate the arrival of the first Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon to RAAF Base Edinburgh. During the Air Force’s transition to the P-8A Poseidon, the AP-3C Orion will continue to operate from RAAF Base Edinburgh, providing maritime surveillance operations across the globe. By 2022, twelve aircraft will be based at RAAF Base Edinburgh, with an additional three to be acquired as part of the Government’s 2016 Defence White Paper commitment.

But the operating concept of the two airplanes is very different and we are working the transition from the P-3 to the P-8 which is a networked asset both benefiting from other networks and contributing to them as well as a core operational capability and approach.

The changes that are coming are very exciting.

So we’re moving from an aircraft, which we’ve pretty much maximized, to a new one which is called P-8, for a reason.

This is an A model aircraft. So with an A model aircraft comes to the ability to grow.

And we’re going to a new world with a starting point, which allows us to grow.

The capacity to integrate, innovate, and talk to our allies and our own services is a quantum leap in what we’ve had in the past and it will allow us to be able to do our roles differently.

Shaping that change is one of the key missions that we’ve got.

We are going to innovate and think out of the box compared to P-3 tactics and concepts of operations.

Question: You fly the Wedgetail and the P-8.

Even though the systems are different, there must be some cross learning opportunities?

Answer: There are.

We can start with the 737 aspects of operating both aircraft and the maintenance opportunities and challenges.

And we do train the electronic system operators on the Wedgetail.

And as we stand up we can connect the simulators as well to shape a broader approach to the capabilities the three aircraft can deliver, namely Wedgetail, P-8 and Triton.

There are many opportunities regarding the synergies between the E-7A and the P-8A that we are yet to explore.

Question: With an aircraft with a broader span of capability, there is the challenge of the demand side.

What about the challenge of meeting the needs of a broader set of customers?

Question: The MPA is a very flexible platform and has been in high demand by many customers.

That is both an opportunity and a challenge.

What it means it that is we will have to prioritize the missions and the customer base for the new systems and capabilities.

We have a large, expansive ocean that we need to patrol around Australia, a large region of interest and we have a small number of assets.

Tasking prioritization, discipline associated with that and getting that right so that we can maximize all those opportunities is key.

With the P-8, and family of systems with the Triton, we can deliver capabilities to many more customers at varying levels, ranging from the strategic to the operational tactical level.

Balancing that demand and getting it right is going to be challenging.

It’s a bonus, it’s a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time we can’t do everything for everyone all the time.

That said, we have directed levels of capability that we will be able to meet.

Question: Let us talk about the way ahead and the advantages of being on the ground floor of the P-8 program.

How do you see those advantages?

Answer: In some ways, it is like having a two nation F-35 program.

Because we are a cooperative partner we have a stake and say in the evolution of the aircraft.

And this is particularly important because the aircraft is software upgradeable.

This allows us working with the USN to drive the innovation of the aircraft and its systems going forward.

We’ve been allowed to grow and develop our requirements collectively.

We think this is very far sighted by the USN as well.

I think we’ve got the ability to influence the USN, and the USN have had the ability to influence us in many of the ways that we do things.

We will be doing things differently going forward.

It is an interactive learning process that we are setting up and it is foundational in character.

Let’s look at what we’re actually generating at the moment.

We’re generating generation’s worth of relationship building, and networking between the communities.

We are doing that over an extended period of time.

For about three years we have been embedding people within the USN’s organization.

There’s friendships that are being forged, and those relationships are going to take that growth path for collaboration forward for generations to come.

When you can ring up the bloke that you did such and such with, have a conversation, and take the effort forward because of that connection.

That is a not well recognized but significant benefit through the collaborative program that we’re working at the moment.

We are shaping integration from the ground up.

And we are doing so with the Australian Defence Force overall.

A number of exercises and training opportunities are designed to have all the three services integrated and working in the same complex battle space.

We’re reworking the way we do business internally, let alone as a collective, or collaborative process.

It’s a great opportunity with the new capabilities we’ve got to actually empower our forces for integration at all levels.

Question: With the focus for the past decade upon land wars, ASW skill sets have clearly atrophied for the key allied navies.

How have you dealt with this?

Answer: It is a challenge.

We’ve had to work hard to make sure that our skills did not atrophy to the point where we didn’t have that capability.

And we’ve done that.

And we’ve done it on the AP-3C in time to move to the P-8 and take on all these new ways of doing business.

So I think we arrested that just in time, but it was a real risk that we faced as well.

Some can look at the new P-8/Triton dyad as delivering significant ISR and C2 capabilities into the battlespace and it will.

But we cannot forget our core mission – which is ASW or as you have described it Maritime Domain Awareness strike capabilities.

We’re the only capability that does independent long range maritime strike.

That’s the thing we need to work hard to maintain.

We need to make sure that we meet our preparedness requirements to provide long range ASW, and ASUW and those missions are key to the way we train, and do business.

The first slideshow was shot during my visit to RAAF Edinburgh and is credited to Second Line of Defense.

The second is credited to the Australian Ministry of Defence. 

The Arrival of a Maritime-Domain Awareness Strike Capability: The Impact of the P-8/Triton Dyad