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Wednesday, November 25, 2020, 07:43 (GMT+7)
The development trend of maritime patrol aircraft in some Asia - Pacific countries

Maritime patrol aircraft (hereafter MPA) is considered as one of the important means to protect the sovereignty, security and safety of national waters. Therefore, in recent years, in addition to improving their existing MPA, a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region have also invested in research, procurement and development of this type of aircraft in order to enhance their maritime patrol capabilities.

Upgrading the existing maritime patrol aircraft

Amidst the complicated developments in the Asia-Pacific region, coastal countries, such as the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all demonstrate their need for new-generation MPA. However, due to the high cost of this type of aircraft, most of the countries have decided to keep using their existing MPA with a smaller number and focus on renovation and modernisation so as to meet the requirements of maritime patrol and reconnaissance in the new situation.

In order to increase MPA’s capabilities in anti-surface warship and anti-submarine warfare, some countries have attached importance to upgrading MPA’s sensor system and multifunctional digital screen, making it possible to search, detect, and collate stored data and automatically capture and follow enemy warships. The radar system within such aircraft has been considerably improved over the past years, forcing smaller targets in the sea surface to be positioned even at a high level of interference. Pieces of infrared and optoelectronic military hardware have also been upgraded, thus enabling MPA to observe water surface targets more accurately and increase their search capabilities. Some types of MPA which have been upgraded can be listed such as: the U.S. P-3C Orion, China’s Y-8X, Russia’s IL-38N and Tu-142M/MZ, and Singapore’s F-50 Fokker. In particular, P-3C Orion is well known for its durability, great working load, and long reconnaissance flight time, together with the use of active and passive sonobuoys to detect submarines. It is also armed with anti-surface ship missiles and aerial anti-submarine torpedoes. P-3C Orion is a long-range MPA, currently in service of 17 countries with a number of more than 400.

At present, the US Navy is maintaining 120 MPA which are variants and upgraded ones of P-3C Orion, tasked with searching and monitoring submarines, and carrying out reconnaissance and surveillance of surface combatants. Meanwhile, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force possesses 90 P-3C Orion patrol aircraft. The “2020 Defence of Japan” annual white paper clearly identifies the country’s need for maintaining a MPA force conducting the tasks of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in remote seas, effectively operating in the patrol and protection of the waters around Japan. Thus, in its budgetary plan of the fiscal year 2020, Japan continues making investments in improving and modernising 7 P-3C Orion aircraft.

The South Korea Navy has been also upgrading its squadron of 16 P-3C Orion aircraft to perform maritime patrol mission. The upgrade program has been undertaken by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in conjunction with US L3 Technologies. The upgraded aircraft’s service life would be extended and they would be equipped with new-generation multi-mission reconnaissance radar, high-resolution infrared and optoelectronic surveillance devices, digital audio signal analyser, and modern avionics. This force allows South Korea to gain the initiative in maritime security surveillance and anti-surface ship and anti-submarine warfare, as well as develop its ability to conduct reconnaissance in a specific area and its search and rescue capacity in remote waters.

Following this trend, Russia also maintains a MPA force, including: 23 Il-38 aircraft, 7 Il-38N aircraft and 24 Tu-142M/MZ aircraft. 14 of its Tu-142M/MZ aircraft have been modernised and provided with new-generation avionics and anti-submarine weapons. 23 Il-38 aircraft are being upgraded to detect submarines and expected to be handed over to the Russian Navy by 2025. Reconnaissance devices allows Il-38 aircraft to detect aerial targets at a range of up to 90 kilometres and moving targets at sea at a distance of 320 kilometres and track 32 targets simultaneously. Avionic and electronic warfare equipment includes nose-mounted search radar (called WET EYE), high-resolution front infrared sensor, and active and passive sonobuoys. In addition, Russia is running a line to upgrade India’s Il-38D aircraft. Accordingly, the modern Novella target search and track system will replace the Berkut system; therefore, the upgraded maritime patrol aircraft will be named Il-38N.

The China Marine Surveillance is using the Shanxi Aviation Industry Group’s Y-8X aircraft, based on the frame of Soviet Union’s An-12 Antonov aircraft, for anti-submarine reconnaissance and patrol missions. The number of Y-8X of the China People’s Liberation Army Navy is not revealed, but there are at least 4 constantly carrying out the reconnaissance task in the China’s Southern War Zone. The Y-8X upgrade program places emphasis on installing avionics, particularly devices for responding to anti-electronic warfare, multi-spectrum radar warning receivers, and anti-missile baiting launchers.

Researching and developing new maritime patrol aircraft

In addition to improving the existing MPA, some countries continue pursuing the goal of developing new-generation manned and unmanned MPA equipped with modern surface ship and submarine detection systems.

The P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), researched and developed by the US Boeing Company, is now seen as the most advanced anti-submarine and anti-surface combatant MPA in the world, with higher speed, larger range and greater cruise reserve than P-3C Orion. This aircraft is designed to carry out command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (C3IRS) missions, and it is equipped with a sonobuoy system for anti-submarine warfare and sensors determining the engine exhaust gas and oil vapour of diesel-electric submarines (which make very low noise and are difficult to detect). The on-board infrared and optoelectronic reconnaissance complex helps detect close-range targets. While the electronic devices perform the tasks of reconnaissance, jamming and cyber warfare, anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine bombs are employed to destroy targets.

Besides, the U.S. has researched and developed two types of unmanned MPA, namely MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9B SeaGuardian with the better performance than manned aircraft, while the cost is lower. Hence, many countries in the region have shown their interests in acquiring these two MPA. MQ-4C Triton can reach a height of more than 17,000 metres and a maximum speed of 575 km/h. It can continuously operate within about 30 hours. Besides, it is equipped with multi-mission radar system, video camera, infrared and optoelectronic sensors, radio reconnaissance equipment, automatic identification system, and advanced receiver - transmitter system in order to detect and automatically classify targets. Once operational, this MPA will work with the manned MPA of P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion to form an effective, multi-dimensional and constant information collection network.

Another US unmanned MPA is MQ-9B SeaGuardian, which is a naval variant of the MQ-9 series, so it retains the unique features of the world’s most modern reconnaissance and attack drone up to now. MQ-9B SeaGuardian is capable of flying at a speed of 388 km/h and at a height of 14,000 metres. It can continuously fly within over 40 hours, with a distance of more than 11,000 kilometres.

To keep pace with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia has also developed a new-generation MPA called Il-114MP provided with the Kasatka-S search-and-targeting radar, active electronically scanned array radar, optoelectronic equipment, and infrared image sensor. The IL-114MP has the operating radius of 300 kilometres, flight height of 8,000 metres, and flight duration of 12 hours. In the meantime, Russia has restored its giant anti-submarine A-42 seaplanes with two D-27 straight-line turbine engines hanging under the wings. A-42 is a maritime patrol, search and rescue aircraft with a take-off weight of over 90 tons, a range of 9,300 kilometres, equipped with the active array radar and Orlan anti-submarine torpedoes.

China has also introduced the new-generation manned Y-8GX6 MPA capable of operating all day and night in all weather conditions with a range of 5,620 kilometres and the flight duration of over 10 hours. The Y-8GX6 is equipped with search radar in its nose, an optoelectronic reconnaissance device installed under its fuselage, and a stern-mounted submarine detector. It can be fitted with SQ-4 and SQ-5 sonobuoys and YJ-83K anti-ship missile.

Furthermore, China has also invested a lot of resources in developing unmanned MPA, especially the BZK-005 drone with a long flight time, at a medium height. China introduced the exported version of BZK-005E in late 2018. Additionally, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is working towards a new drone version named CH-4 with heavy-fuel engines facilitating longer flight time and less maintenance.

In the time to come, MPA will play an increasingly important role as the requirements set by maritime sovereignty and security protection become more stringent. Therefore, the coastal nations in the region will actively invest in research, development or procurement of new-generation MPA to enhance their maritime reconnaissance and combat capabilities. That will lead to concerns of the international community about an arms race at sea in the 21st century - “the century of seas and oceans” and increase the risk of conflict in the disputed waters.


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