A crucial two week war games trial of one of the troubled Wedgetail airborne early warning and command aircraft in the Northern Territory has been “inconclusive”.

The disclosure, in the defence and aviation newsletter Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report, adds to uncertainty over whether Australia will be forced to take delivery of expensive sub-standard Wedgetails in a project running up to six years behind schedule if it becomes “fully operational” by 2012, or even cancel the $3.5 billion project for six of the jets which are based on the Boeing 737 airframe.

The Defence Material Office’s general manager projects, Warren King, raised the cancellation option in testimony to the Senate Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee on 22 April.

King then said “If it has no future there is no point going forward with it”.

The consequences for defence planning if the project fails will be very damaging for the defence bureaucracy who bought the Boeing sales pitch and for Boeing, following their repeated claims about the project’s timeframe and development not dissimilar to its claims regarding the progress of the 787 Dreamliner program over the last three years.

Peter Ricketts, who writes and publishes the emailed Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report says “the tests during the Arnhem Thunder war games showed the radar and associated systems were not working properly and that there are still major challenges to overcome.”

Ricketts reported that the trials showed impressive range capability for the radar but did not verify any solution to the earlier issues of “clutter” confusion as they were conducted over remote and empty terrain with very little on the ground that would need to be identified, tracked and assessed by the complex array of sensors and radar mounted on the jets.

Another Wedgetail, converted from a civil 737 airframe at a special facility at Amberley, was flown to Darwin as a source of spare parts during the trial. The all important integration on the test Wedgetail worked until the final day of the war games and then broke down when a vital component failed.

Australia has stopped making progress payments to Boeing on the program, while Boeing has taken hundreds of millions of dollars in associated write downs on its financial accounts.

Relations between the DMO and Boeing appear to be strained over the project. It has commissioned the Lincoln Laboratory at the MIT to independently report on whether the technology promised by the contract with Boeing is deliverable and whether it could be delivered below specification in a form capable of being up graded to full capability.

The official time line for assessing the MIT report, the recent war games and other data and coming to a decision to continue or cancel has been put as sometime between July and September.

This is the third major defence project to require urgent evaluation this year, the others being the Seasprite helicopter program, which was cancelled in March at a write off of $1 billion in wasted investment, and the JSF or Joint Strike Fighter project, which caused the previous government to order Super Hornets as an interim measure.

Australia will not save money by cancelling the Wedgetail, but will be forced to find an urgent replacement, which, in speculation, might come from the Israeli defence technology sector.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey