Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the Asia-Pacific Area
Traditionally, a nation’s claims to the surrounding seas extended to territorial waters no more than 12nm (about 22km) beyond its shoreline. However, the idea of allotting nations Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to give them more control of maritime affairs outside territorial limits gained acceptance in the late 20th century.
In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea formally adopted the 200nm (370km) EEZ. Part V, Article 55 of the convention states, “The exclusive economic zone is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention.”
The consequence of this is that the body of water that a nation is tasked with protecting and patrolling has grown significantly when its EEZ is factored in. Challenges to EEZ security include piracy, terrorism, illegal immigration, and smuggling, while the enlarged maritime area of direct interest to nations also means it would be more inefficient and expensive to patrol solely by seaborne vessels. The result is that states are increasingly using maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) to monitor and patrol the activities inside the EEZs.
The value of MPAs was driven home in a big way in March 2014 when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared soon after beginning a regularly scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Despite a two-month long extensive search over the South China Sea and, subsequently, the Indian Ocean west of Australia by MPAs from several regional countries, no trace of the Boeing 777 has since been found. The operation did however drive home the utility of MPAs capable of safely conducting long overwater flights for such missions.
The need for such aircraft in the Indo-Pacific is further driven by a dependence on maritime trade and a shifting geopolitical outlook. Coupled with the extensive coastlines found in the region (62,800km along Asia alone) and the dominance of bodies of water, it is altogether unsurprising that many of the region’s military modernisation programs support an MPA element.
Other drivers include the simmering territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea at the forefront of the news in recent years. In addition, the region is expected to see more than 100 submarines operational by 2030, mostly belonging to China but also including newcomers to the submarine club.
China’s developing MPA capability is, in effect, a microcosm of how its increasingly assertive strategic power has come about.
At the end of the Cold War, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF), the aviation arm of the PLAN, had no dedicated MPA to speak of. Development in this area was, however, aided by the honeymoon period in relations between China and the Western world in the late 1990s and early 2000s when China gained some access to Western and Russian military technology helping it to jump-start its own defence industry.
These included the development of two of its first, modern, dedicated MTA in the form of the Shaanxi Y-8X and Y-8J, both of which entered service in the early 2000s. Based on the Y-8 turboprop airlifter (a development of the Antonov An-12 Cub), the Y-8X and Y-8J were equipped with the American Litton AN/APS-504(V)3 surface search radar and Racal (now Thales) Skymaster surveillance radar, respectively.
This was followed by the development, beginning in 2007, of a new MPA with indigenous systems. The KQ-200 entered service around 2015 and is based on the newer Y-8F platform with a redesigned fuselage, new engines with high-efficiency propellers, improved avionics, and improved cargo capacity.
The KQ-200 is fitted with a weapons bay that can carry torpedoes, depth charges, and sonobuoys. Sensor fit includes a surface search radar, magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) ‘stinger’ in its rear fuselage, and a datalink suite. The type has equipped PLANAF regiments at all three Chinese naval fleet commands, and is regularly encountered in international waters around China, with sightings by Japanese and Taiwanese interceptors, as well as over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
In addition to Australia and New Zealand, the Lockheed P-3 Orion has been the mainstay of the MPA fleets of US-aligned Asian militaries, with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand operating the venerable workhorse. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) adopted the Orion in 1981 following an evaluation of successors to the Lockheed SP-2H and Kawasaki P-2J Neptunes. With an initial order of 45 aircraft, the JMSDF eventually operated more than 100 aircraft, most of which were assembled locally by Kawasaki.
Today that number in service has dropped to some 70 aircraft, with four JMSDF Kokutais (squadrons) based throughout Japan. They serve alongside five OP-3C reconnaissance aircraft, one UP-3C test and evaluation aircraft, and three UP-3D Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) training aircraft. The JMSDF Orions have been progressively upgraded during their service lives, beginning in 1987 when the government announced that all Orions would be modified to Update III standard.
Japan’s P-3Js have performed a vital role in patrolling Japan’s vast surrounding waters, stretching from the East China Sea up to the Sea of Japan and stretching out into the North-Western Pacific, tracking Soviet submarine activity during the Cold War and today facing increasing numbers of Chinese submarines and other maritime forces in a standoff, primarily over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The JMSDF is now in the process of replacing its Orions with the locally-developed Kawasaki P-1 MPA. Conceived in 2001, Kawasaki started development of the P-X that same year, with the first two production aircraft delivered to the service in 2013. The JMSDF had about 20 P-1s on strength as of mid-2020, serving with one Kokutai at Atsugi south of Tokyo, and is in the process of replacing the P-3Js at Kanoya at Japan’s southern tip.
The P-1 is fitted with a Toshiba Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) and an NEC multi-static sonar, and can carry deployable sonobuoys and 9,000kg (19,800lbs) of external stores such as anti-ship missiles or torpedoes on eight internal and external hardpoints. Japan has been trying to export the P-1 as part of a government push for arms exports following a loosening of an export ban, but has yet to find a customer for the type.
South Korea, Japan’s neighbour across the Sea of Japan (or East Sea) also operates the P-3, flying 16 P-3Cs from bases in Pohang and Jeju Island. The Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) ordered eight P-3C Update III+ aircraft in late 1990 just as Lockheed was planning to close its Orion production line. The first aircraft was rolled out in June 1994 with the eighth aircraft delivered in December 1995, and these replaced a squadron of Grumman S-2A/F Trackers in the RoKN.
The South Koreans had plans to acquire another eight Orions for a second squadron as early as 1996 and made a formal FMS request soon after, but it was not until July 2002 before Congress approved the sale. The second batch of eight are surplus ex-USN P-3Bs recovered from storage and put through a structural refurbishment program. L3 was tapped to provide system modernisation and service life extension, with Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) as the prime contractor.
The main submarine threat faced by the South Koreans comes from North Korea’s fleet of diesel electric submarines which includes numerous midget submarines used to drop infiltrators and attack RoKN ships. The latter are notoriously hard to detect and media reports have previously stated that fewer than a third of known North Korean submarine sorties have been successfully detected and/or tracked by South Korean ASW forces.
Like Australia and New Zealand, South Korea is also making the transition from P-3s to the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and was given US State Department approval to acquire six in September 2018. All six RoKN aircraft were contracted in April 2020 under an umbrella contract for 18 P-8As that will also go to the US Navy and New Zealand.
India is the other major user of the P-8 in the Indo-Pacific, operating eight examples of the unique P-8I version of the Poseidon, known locally as Neptune. The major difference from the P-8As is the presence of a MAD and a Telephonics AN/APC-143 OceanEye radar on the P-8I.
India has been very happy with the performance of its P-8Is. It placed a follow-on order for four more P-8Is in 2016, and has secured government approval for six more aircraft. The type has been employed during the recent Doklam standoff with Chinese forces on the border with China, in addition to its regular maritime patrol missions. The latter has assumed even more importance as China’s military is increasingly projecting its power into the Indian Ocean.
Another Asian nation concerned about Chinese maritime activity is Taiwan. The Republic of China Navy (RoCN) acquired 12 P-3C aircraft for US$1.96 billion under an FMS program in 2007 to replace elderly turbine-powered Grumman S-2T Trackers.
Taiwan’s P-3s were also taken from desert storage, and were completely overhauled and modernised by Lockheed Martin. Upgrades include new mission systems, avionics, and service-life extension kits to extend airframe life for an additional 15,000 flight hours. The mission system upgrades include installation of electronic support measures, acoustics, communications, electro-optic and infrared sensors, and new data management software and hardware, controls, displays, and mission computers.
Service life extension modifications include new outer wings, centre wing lower surfaces, horizontal stabilisers, horizontal stabiliser leading edges, and engine nacelles. The first modernised RoCN P-3C arrived at Taiwan’s Pingtung Airbase in late September 2013. Further upgrades have since taken place with the addition of Link-11 and advanced tactical data links.
The small island nation of Singapore is another user of Fokker turboprop MPA, operating five Fokker 50 Maritime Enforcer Mk.2s at Changi West airbase. The Enforcers are equipped with the Raytheon AN/APS-134 radar, a GEC-Marconi forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, and what is believed to be an Israeli Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system.
Technically belonging to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the Enforcers are crewed by a mix of RSAF pilots and specialists from the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). They can employ the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile as well as the Eurotorp Whitehead A244S lightweight anti-submarine torpedo. They are also capable of providing over-the-horizon targeting for RSN warships and ship-launched RGM-84 Harpoon missiles.
Singapore’s Enforcers are used primarily for maritime surveillance in the congested waters of the Straits of Malacca and the western end of the South China Sea, including against the pirates that plague commercial shipping in the region. Since 2011, Singapore has also contributed one aircraft to the multinational anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden, operating from Djibouti.
The potential acquisition of a new MPA by Singapore has been mentioned before, with reports in 2010 indicating it had requested information from Lockheed Martin on refurbished P-3s similar to Taiwan’s. Singapore has also been mentioned as a potential customer for the P-8A given its close ties to the US and Australia, and IAI has had a visible presence at defence trade shows in Singapore marketing a Global Express business jet MPA solution known as the EL/I-3360.
However, the RSAF’s chief has said in response to media queries in early 2020 that the service is happy to keep its Fokker 50s in service in the short to medium-term, and there are no concrete plans in place for their replacement.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is another regional country keen to improve its maritime and air domain awareness given Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese military operates six Viking Air DHC-6 Twin Otters delivered from 2014, three of which are in the Guardian 400 maritime surveillance configuration. They are equipped with the IAI-Elta EL/M-2022 maritime radar system and MiniPOP day/night EO turret, and were modified by Ikhana Aircraft Services in the US.
But Vietnam has a requirement for a more capable MPA, and defence industry sources have reportedly suggested that Vietnam could also seek refurbished P-3Cs in the wake of the US recently lifting its decades-old arms embargo imposed after the Vietnam War. Another possible candidate is the Airbus Military C295 Persuader MPA/ASW already in service with Portugal and Chile given Vietnam already operates three C295 transports. Rationalisation of its airlifters and MPAs is surely an appealing prospect for a country of limited means.
Thailand rounds off the regional list of users of the P-3. The kingdom ordered three ex-USN P-3As in 1989, with two modified to P-3T (mainly based on the TAC/NAV Mod version) standard, and delivered in February 1995. The third became a VP-3T VIP/Surveillance aircraft. All the Thai aircraft have received modern navigation systems and commercial colour weather radars, and Thailand has also received two airframes for use as spares donors.
The Royal Thai Navy also operates a pair of Fokker F27 Maritimes and seven Dornier Do228s performing the MSA mission. The Fokker F27s are based at U-Tapao in the south of Thailand alongside the P-3Ts. They are fitted with a surface search radar and can be armed with gun pods, rockets, and torpedoes.
Meanwhile, RUAG has started an upgrade program on two of the Thai Do228s which will see the installation in Germany of a 360-degree search radar, glass cockpit, avionics, and mission systems. The airframes of the 25-year-old aircraft will also be inspected and any airframe issues rectified.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force’s MPA fleet currently comprises four Beechcraft B200T Super King Airs and a single Lockheed C-130H-MP Hercules that can be fitted with a roll-on roll-off kit for maritime surveillance and patrol. The former capability is in need of replacement in light of the country’s extensive and disparate EEZ and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Malaysian defence establishment is well-aware of the need for a new MPA, and at various times manufacturers have hawked their respective offerings to the nation without success, notably Indonesia’s PTDI with its licence-produced CN-235MPA and Saab with the Swordfish MPA based on the Saab 2000 or Bombardier Q400 turboprops.
Instead, in early 2020, Malaysia announced that it would tap into funding from the US Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) program to convert at least two of its existing CN-235s into MPAs. The CN235s will be upgraded with equipment from US companies Science and Engineering Services International and Integrated Surveillance and Defence Inc, with PTDI carrying out the work. One of the aircraft had been handed over to PTDI for conversion as of September 2020.
This article was published by ADBR.
It appeared first in the Jan-Feb 2021 issue of ADBR and the article was written by Mike Yeo.
The featured photo: the Kawasaki P-1 is replacing the Lockheed P-3J in JASDF service. (JASDF)