On December 19, a promise was made by the Australian government to add an Antarctic Division jet to surveillance of Japanese whalers by the chartered P&O polar cruiser the Oceanic Viking.

But since then, nobody in government is saying anything coherent about an audacious plan that seemed destined to eclipse Gareth Evans’ dispatch of spy flights by RAAF F-111s over Tasmania to gather evidence against the duly quashed state government’s plans to dam the Franklin River.

Yet the RAAF could yet again be the key.

It has 18 Orion long range maritime reconnaissance turbo-props that are superbly equipped to monitor and record every single minute of criminal whale slaughtering by our uncouth major trading partner in our extended territorial waters.

Instead it proposes useless and dangerous low level passes on an ad hoc basis by a civilian airliner ill-equipped and unsuited to the task.

Qantas sightseeing charter flights over Antarctica are forbidden to descend anywhere remotely near sea level. Why should the supply flights carrying at times more than 20 scientists in a smaller Antarctic division jet be any different?

What are the insurance consequences for the government of directing the supply flight air crew to expose themselves and their passengers to manoeuvres that are illegal in a Qantas jet?

Before the pilots of the Airbus A319 make their first whale fleet fly-over they will need to be rehearsed on the abnormal challenges of doing a wing-over low speed and low altitude pass in the notoriously wild surface weather conditions of the Southern Ocean, switching from headwinds that can exceed 160 kmh to challenging cross winds and tail winds.

It is the sort of flying that is expressly forbidden by airlines, their insurers and air safety regulators in the world at large.

Of course there is the air force alternative which is just begging to be used.

The RAAF has 18 Lockheed Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft that were upgraded in 2002 to do all of the things a civilian jet can’t do.

They are “fitted with a variety of sensors, including digital multi-mode radar, electronic support measures, electro-optical detection equipment ( in infra-red and visual wavelengths), a magnetic anomaly detector, identification friend or foe equipment and acoustic detectors.”

In fact they are even armed with aptly named Harpoon missiles.

The Orions can loiter for three hours at low speed and low altitude in any conditions beside the Japanese whalers anywhere within 1,800 nautical miles of a base, which coincidentally equals the one way distance between Hobart and Casey.

The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Ice Minister Peter Garrett can deploy relays of Orions to document in vivid high resolution multi-spectral glory every single minute of the whale mission and slaughters for the entire season if they are genuine.

In fact most of the cost is already paid for in the fixed overheads of maintaining the Orions at full readiness to protect Australian interests at a moment’s notice.

Of course, that is what the RAAF has told us. Could it be that our 18 Orions are in reality so incapable of a sustained peace time operation over the Southern Ocean that even keeping one of them on station above the whaling criminals for a week is out of the question?

The massive cone of silence that has been dropped over the whale chaser stunt might be covering something else of serious national interest.

Peter Fray

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