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Analysis: Pakistan Navy’s New LRMPA Project

On 07 October 2020, the outgoing Pakistan Navy (PN) Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, announced that the PN is moving ahead with its new long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) project. Adm. Abbasi revealed that the PN ordered one twin-engine commercial jet aircraft to operate as the platform for the new LRMPA. The PN is currently planning to acquire a total of 10 new LRMPAs.

The PN had announced its interest in a new jet powered LRMPA in September 2018. The PN stated that it was open to acquiring the system “from any source, including the U.S.”[1] However, by March 2020, the PN opted to take ownership of the LRMPA program by pursuing it as an original project.

The first step to this project was releasing a tender for one twin-engine jet aircraft with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 120,000 lbs to 140,000 lbs and ferry range of 4,000+ nautical miles. The PN had also added that the aircraft’s “major components” – such as engines, flight control system, landing gears, and other critical inputs – must be free of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) coverage.

For the second step, the outgoing CNS revealed that the PN will template the new LRMPA’s onboard suite with that of the RAS-72 Sea Eagle. The RAS-72 is a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) based on the ATR-72 – the PN contracted the conversion work to Rheinland Air Service (RAS) GmbH in Germany in 2016.

The PN did not disclose a timeline for when the LRMPAs will arrive, but the previous CNS stated that the PN issued the contract for the first unit. Using the RAS-72 as a reference point, the PN could induct its first LRMPA in 2022 or 2023. However, the actual timeline would also depend on the PN’s design specifications, the project’s technical complications, funding, and political factors.

Aircraft Platform

In an earlier article, Quwa had determined that the PN’s aircraft tender narrows the platform selection to one of the Embraer Lineage 1000E. If it trims its range requirements to 2,500+ nautical miles, it can also consider the Embraer E190-E2/E195-E2 and the Airbus 220. If the PN relaxes its MTOW requirements, the Sukhoi Superjet 100 and Bombardier Global 6000/7500/8000-series.

However, if taken strictly, the tender clearly points to the Lineage 1000. Though a variant of the Embraer E190-series, the Lineage 1000E is no longer in production. Reportedly, there are 28 Lineage 1000E aircraft in service, primarily with private operators. The PN likely understood the narrow parameters and, in turn, evidently sought the Lineage 1000E as the platform for its next-generation LRMPA.

The selection of the Lineage 1000E results in a unique situation.

First, the aircraft is no longer in production – so the existing userbase is the supply. The finite reality of the supply may have made it tenable for the PN to accept the aircraft’s ITAR inputs. The PN can basically acquire the aircraft through private channels, so Embraer need not worry about securing US approval for sales to the PN. The transactions would at some level be out of Embraer’s direct control.

Second, because the Lineage 1000E is still based on the Embraer E190/195-series, it still draws on a wide commercial base for maintenance and support. So, despite there being few Lineage 1000E, the PN would not be short in the way of spare parts, upgrade options, and additional aircraft (but not the exact version).

Third, the in-house expertise to support the Lineage 1000E could translate over to the E190/195. In other words, if the PN sets-up a domestic maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) site for the Lineage 1000E, it could also support the E190/E195. The latter could become an option for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), privately-owned Pakistani airlines, and, potentially, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

Finally – though not specific to the Lineage 1000E – the use of a commercial airliner will enable the PN to operate its new LRMPAs at a lower cost than a mission-specific design (such as the P-3C). In fact, sanctions or directed supply side constraints will also affect the PN less because it can reach into commercial market sources for spare parts, spare engines, and other inputs to keep its LRMPAs flying.

Configuration and Capabilities

Adm. Abbasi stated that the LRMPA will use the RAS-72 Sea Eagle MPA as its template for avionics.

The LRMPA will likely use the same subsystems as the Sea Eagle MPA:

  • Leonardo Seaspray 7300E active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar;
  • FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE III electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret;
  • Elettronica electronic support measures (ESM);
  • Aerodata AG AeroMission combat/mission management system;
  • Link Green tactical datalink (TDL) protocol;
  • and Ku-band satellite-communications (SATCOM) capability.

Templating the RAS-72 would make sense because it would allow the PN to leverage the approvals it had already received for those subsystems. In addition, it could extend the maintenance and training overhead for the RAS-72 to cover the LRMPA. So, for example, aircrews can train across one platform yet seamlessly move between the two types without requiring additional training.

However, if the PN is taking the exact same steps with the LRMPAs as it did with the RAS-72, then it would also have to live with certain limitations in its new LRMPA.

First, the PN may not be working with the OEM (e.g., Embraer) to configure the aircraft. This may limit the PN from asking for major modifications, such as the inclusion of an internal bay for torpedoes. Second, the company carrying out the conversion would also have to deal with the cost and complexity of adding external hardpoints. Basically, the conversion team may not be able to draw on the complete potential of the aircraft in terms of its weapon payload and deployment capability.

The PN likely understood – and accepted – this trade-off. It may not have an LRMPA as capable as say the Boeing P-8 or Kawasaki P-1, but its solution would also cost much less, and involve far fewer regulatory or foreign relations headaches to acquire. Of course, the third-party company converting the aircraft (which may be RAS in Germany) could work with the OEM to carry out optimal design changes.

Overall, one could safely expect the PN LRMPA to mirror the capabilities of Saab’s ill-fated Swordfish MPA in terms of range, payload, weapon deployment, and cost. By leveraging a large body of COTS and, in turn, keeping the design changes to the base platform comparatively minimal, Saab had promised it could offer the Swordfish MPA for two-thirds the acquisition price and half the support cost of the P-8. In 2017, Quwa estimated that the cost of each Saab Swordfish MPA would be $140 m. In terms of payload, the Swordfish was to have four hardpoints with the ability to deploy anti-ship missiles and lightweight ASW torpedoes.

The potential omission of an internal bay would be a capability downgrade compared to the legacy P-3C. However, it is a trade-off for a lower acquisition cost and fewer procurement constraints.

In the future, it will be worth seeing if the PN tries building an in-house capacity for configuring its LRMPAs independently. It could be an area where the Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development (AvRID) and Naval Research and Development Institute (NRDI) could collaborate for follow-up LRMPA work.

[1] Anwar Iqbal. “US suspension of aid not a ‘life or death situation’ for Pakistan, says navy chief in Washington.” Dawn News. 18 September 2018. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1433697/us-suspension-of-aid-not-a-life-or-death-situation-for-pakistan-says-navy-chief-in-washington

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