Sea Control and airborne anti-surface/submarine warfare and surveillance is becoming a very hot mission set for air arms from around the world to invest into. This is especially true as “globalization” and the world’s disparate economies become more intertwined. Design it here, build it there, sell it here, is becoming “business as normal” when it comes to international commerce, and ease of shipping is the potential “weak” link in this scheme. Additionally, the rise of piracy, gulf state wealth, China’s rise and the resulting strategic “pivot towards the Pacific” have also bolstered the need for cutting edge, yet scalable, sea control capabilities. Luckily, the defense and aerospace industry have more options than ever to tailor fit an air arms needs and budgets to an airframe and subsystem maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) concept.
Enter five programs of interest that I would like to discuss. First is Boeing’s announcement at the Dubai Air Show that they will downsize the P-8 Poseidon’s mission suite into a Challenger 605 business jet, they call it the Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA). Sure, this system will be stripped down compared to the heavy and Omni-mission P-8, but all the key features will still be present. The test bird will sport the Selex ES Seaspray 7300 maritime surveillance radar and the FLIR Systems Star Safire 380 EO/IR sensor turret along with the P-8s highly capable mission computer. Additional capabilities will undoubtedly come down the line as add-on options, such as some ESM/ELINT and data relay capabilities. Still, just out of the box the test aircraft will be a highly capable multi-mission aircraft, all packed into a proven, reliable, serviceable, and cost-effective airframe.
The Boeing modified Challenger will have a range of around 2600 miles and about 8.5 or so hours of endurance. I am interested to find out if the modified CL605 will get hard points as the program progresses. Even though the ground clearance may be an issue for missiles like the Harpoon and others, it should not be a problem for Griffin/Brimstone/Hellfire sized missiles. Additionally, micro guided munitions are being tested and will soon be fielded on drones and eventually manned platforms (hopefully). Although this would not give the Boring CL605 hardcore anti-ship capability, it would give the jet a serious littoral warfare/anti-piracy/anti-fast boat capability or even close air support over land potential.
The US Navy should really evaluate this aircraft. What percentage of missions really require a P-8? For those that do not I would suggest procuring something with P-8 commonality and much lower operating and acquisition costs. Boeing’s CL605 sea control platform seems like a very good companion to the its bigger brother. Then again there are dozens of S-3 Vikings baking in the desert with plenty of life left them. An aircraft that really could fill so many roles with new “off the shelf” avionics and weapons systems. In a world where speed means less and endurance, payload and space for avionics means more, the poor S-3 had its wings clipped right before sensor and munitions technology could have made it one of the most relevant aircraft in the DoD’s inventory, either manned or unmanned form (read this article).
Apparently, South Korea may have picked up on the S-3’s latent potential as rumors have been brewing that they may be interested in acquiring, refurbishing, and putting to work, some of the orphaned S-3s. There is even talk about potentially procuring a fixed wing carrier able to operate aircraft like the S-3 from, although, especially in the short-term, I find this less believable than just upgrading and putting the S-3 to work from land bases around the Peninsula. The Viking is uniquely suited for the mission of patrolling the waters surrounding South Korea when it comes to range and the capabilities needed to counter aggressors from the North. Additionally, they can launch sonobuoys and hunt subs, which is a great importance considering the North retains a small but relevant fleet of quiet diesels submarines and midget submarines. The aircraft can also engage targets in the littoral regions, a key capability considering the tensions along the coastal borders with the North and the North’s known tactic of deploying masses of special forces deep behind the South’s lines via boats and submarines should the war become hot between the two nations. Finally, a revamped Viking, especially with off the shelf modern avionics, could have fantastic secondary surveillance capabilities. In many ways, due to the miniaturization of electronics and digitized sub-systems, an upgraded S-3, focused on South Korea’s unique mission needs, could both posses a potent anti-surface warfare and submarine capability but also much of the capabilities lost when the ES-3 Shadow was prematurely retired out of totally idiocy quite some time ago. A near sighted move by the USN that is now supposed “pivot toward the Pacific.” Regardless, South Korea could build some electronic intelligence and network relay capability into an updated Viking, thus turning what was already a versatile aircraft into a true flying “Swiss Army Knife.”
Meanwhile, the folks over at Piaggio are doing some pretty cool stuff with their super efficient and sleek P.180 Avanti business turboprop. After years of showing models of what would be eventually named the P.1HH “Hammerhead” unmanned mid altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV, it has been announced that the P.1HH has taken its first flight. This aircraft offers similar capabilities as Boeing CL605 but without humans onboard, with greater range, and turboprop efficiency. The P.180 is a uniquely well suited platform for this unmanned mission, possessing the capability of flying over a wide envelope of profiles, while utilizing its already efficient design and voluminous interior for fuel and sensors. In some ways this aircraft may be a little ahead of its time as many operators who may buy it still have little experience with unmanned aircraft operations, and especially heavy unmanned aircraft operations. Although its capabilities seem fantastic, the risk in procuring an unmanned system of this complexity for such an important role may seem to great to many customers at this time. Nonetheless, others nations, like those in the Pacific region, may have to take the leap of unmanned faith to get the range, efficiency and affordability out of a single easily serviceable platform. When your very security may depend on constantly surveying a LOT of water, unmanned just makes more dollars and sense. I would be interested to see how a Pilatus PC-12 based unmanned maritime patrol aircraft conversion would stack up to this Hammerhead concept. It seems that even greater economy could be realized with only a relatively small loss of capability…
On the heavier side of sea control, the promising SC-130J Sea Hercules concept (more about this concept here) may have its first buyer, Singapore. The SC-130J is truly an intriguing concept. A flying Littoral Combat Ship of sorts, without the controversy of course, the SC-130 Sea Hercules would be able to do many missions in a reconfigurable way. One day it can go out on a search and rescue mission, the next it can chase quiet diesel subs out in the open ocean, the next day it can drop special operations commandos onto an island, a day later it act as an airborne command post. With the addition of the already proven “Harvest Hawk” capability, the SC-130J can sport Hellfire and Griffon air to ground missiles, for battle in the muddy waters, or it can bristle with Harpoon or SLAM-ER missiles, capable of attacking coastlines and ships at sea at standoff distances. The Sea Hercules is literally one stop “plug and play” shopping for a country’s sea control and maritime surveillance and attack needs and the concept is really long overdue. Still, all this capability comes at a price, not just to purchase but to operate. C-130Js are large, heavy and complex machines that do not come cheap, which takes them off many nation’s military hardware shopping lists. None-the-less, their flexibility, and potential growth rivals the P-8, although the Navy already has dedicated C-130 transport capability and the special forces also have their own highly tricked out Hercules aircraft, which makes it irrelevant for the US, but totally relevant to other nations who do not have such luxuries.
Finally, we have the news that earlier this month, Northrop Grumman’s supersized “Firescout,” the MQ-8C, based on the venerable Bell Jet Ranger light turbine chopper, has taken its first flight. This aircraft is quite the upgrade over its little brother, the MQ-8B, with over 12 hours of endurance and a 2500lb payload. The central design inspiration surrounding the Firescout is that it is meant to be deployed on ships at sea, which gives the drone’s host surface combatant a whole new capability: unmanned long endurance, low altitude, sea control, surveillance, attack and possibly logistics. In fact, in so many ways, rotary wing unmanned anti-surface warfare aircraft are the most exciting development in the “salty” area of air combat. Being able to launch an unmanned aircraft off a ship with basic helicopter handling facilities and sending it to go scan large swathes of sea around its mother ship, while also being able to investigate up close and personal contacts of interest, is really fantastic and will eventually add a new dimension of capability to even rudimentary surface combatants.
These aircraft will be able to do much more than just sea control. Attack is already in the Firescout’s brochure. This is a capability ideally suited for the littoral regions, where fast boat attacks and other asymmetric threats are a real looming possibility. As laser guided rockets and micro-guided munitions become widely deployed, the Firescout will pack a large amount of firepower in a small package. This attack capability will also come into play when supporting special forces. Being able to observe and/or act as a communication relay during a special forces operation is fantastic, but being able to also deliver extremely precise fire support on demand, without putting an aircrew at risk, is just fantastic. Additionally, other capabilities are being brought to fruition for unmanned choppers, including resupply. Lockheed’s unmanned Kmax demonstrator has been hauling crap in Afghanistan and pushing its own envelope for months now to great success. Being able to use Firescout aircraft, especially the larger Jet Ranger bases MQ-8C, for resupply of special forces, once gain without putting an aircrew at risk, would be a godsend. Eventually, even extraction of troops under emergency conditions may become part of the aircraft’s unique mission set.
Theoretically, the Firescout could carry a Scan Eagle size drone far over the horizon, drop it into action, and relay its information back to its controllers. In effect this would mean you have two drones forward deployed that could scan a much larger area in multiple directions, as a team, and both are fully recoverable and reusable. In the end the MQ-8C is just a platform to haul sensors, weapons, and whatever else from one very small point to another very small point, so the capabilities that could be brought to this weapon system are really up to the manufacturer’s and the customer’s imagination and pocketbook.
Regardless of the platform, the maritime patrol aircraft marketplace is in the process of ballooning. The odd thing about it is that very few of the platforms offered are just maritime patrol aircraft, they are in fact multi-role sensor and even weapons delivery platforms that are optimized for range and persistence, both key elements of the battlefield today, and especially tomorrow. It would be wise for vendors who are proposing aircraft in this marketplace to really show the plethora of missions and possible upgrades each aircraft can sport, while at the same time underling how much UAV like capabilities manned platforms offer, and how much manned like capabilities unmanned platforms offer, as the difference in choice is starting to blur. Beyond what platform is best for what mission or nation, any platform is better than none at this point, as the world is increasingly turning it strategic gaze away from the sandy deserts of the middle east, towards the vast expanses of the worlds oceans, and especially those in the Eastern Hemisphere. Both are desolate and inhospitable environments, but they are as different as it gets when it comes to the realities of air combat and the collection of information via the air.