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Pakistan Navy Officially Announces Next-Gen LRMPA Program

On 02 September 2021, the Pakistan Navy (PN) announced that it will procure three long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) based on the Embraer Lineage 1000E. According to the PN’s press release on social media, the LRMPAs will have “the latest weapons and sensors to undertake Maritime Air Operations.”

The PN’s announcement confirms earlier news reports about Pakistan contracting Paramount Group and Leonardo to overhaul and convert the aircraft, respectively. Reportedly designated “Sea Sultan”, Pakistan intends to acquire a total of 10 aircraft to gradually replace its Lockheed P-3C Orion LRMPAs. The PN did not disclose the duration of the procurement timeline, though 10-12 years could be plausible.

The PN announced its plans to acquire a new jet-powered LRMPA in 2018. The Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) at the time, Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, said that the PN was open to acquiring new aircraft from any source, including the United States if possible, thus hinting at an interest in the Boeing P-8 Poseidon.

However, Pakistan’s tenuous defence ties with the U.S. and the high cost of the P-8 had basically left the PN with one realistic option for its LRMPA requirements: pursuing an original project. Prior to the start of the Sea Sultan program, the closest analogous alternative to the P-8 was Saab’s Swordfish MPA concept.

The Saab Swordfish combines the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet with several commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) subsystems from Saab, Leonardo, FLIR Systems and other vendors.

Though not as large as the P-8, Saab said the Swordfish would cost two-thirds as much as the P-8 to acquire and half as much to maintain in through-life. But the lower costs come at the expense of less payload and range compared to the P-8. Clearly, the countries that could acquire the P-8 ultimately opted for it – or in Japan’s case, developed a closely comparable design (i.e., the Kawasaki P-1).

The PN chose to acquire an original project similar to the Swordfish in terms of COTS subsystems, but with the ATR-72-based Sea Eagle maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as the template. However, the PN opted for a larger aircraft in the form of the Lineage 1000E. In fact, based on its original tender from 2020, the PN was specifically seeking this particular aircraft, it was not interested in the Global 6000 or other platforms.

Moreover, though the Lineage 1000E is based on the Embraer E190-series, the former incorporates added fuel tanks that greatly expand the base design’s range. However, those same fuel tanks are using internal space, so it will be interesting to see how Leonardo, the conversion vendor, will retain that while building the system to the PN’s relatively extensive requirements.

Based on its original tender, the PN requires its next-generation LRMPA to be capable of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), airborne early warning (AEW), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Thus, the LRMPAs are supposed to carry a complete sensor suite plus possess a credible armament capability for surface and sub-surface threats.

Interestingly, the Global 6000 was apparently capable of it, but thanks to Saab and Bombardier integrating four external hardpoints to the airframe. Those hardpoints could support lightweight ASW torpedoes and the Saab RBS-15EF anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). The rear of the Global 6000 also incorporated an area for sonobuoy storage with 112 slots, which the Swordfish could deploy via two rotary sonobuoy launchers.

The PN is likely aiming for comparable capabilities through the Sea Sultan. Leonardo will have to dedicate a portion of the airframe’s internal space for the sonobuoy launcher (but without affecting the additional fuel tanks). However, how Leonardo will enable the ASW and ASuW armament capabilities is less clear.

One option could be to create an internal launch bay for the lightweight ASW torpedoes. Reportedly, the PN selected Leonardo because it was familiar with the vendor’s torpedo-release system on the Sea Eagle MPA. However, the ATR-72 employs this torpedo release system through an external hardpoint. It is also unclear if the Sea Eagle’s hardpoint can support ASCMs, which are heavier than lightweight torpedoes.

Even if Leonardo uses the same system for internally-stored torpedoes, it will still need to incorporate a different hardpoint system for ASCMs. This capability could take the form of external hardpoints, possibly similar to the ones Saab used for the Swordfish MPA. It will be worth seeing the type of ASCM the PN will look to use from the Sea Sultan; certain solutions – such as the C-802 or Atmaca – would offer a stand-off weapon (SOW) capability against fixed and moving targets.

The AEW capability would likely come through the main multi-mode radar, likely the Leonardo Seaspray active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. This radar would not offer the same breadth of range or capability as a dedicated airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft like the Karakoram Eagle or Erieye. However, the PN is likely looking to deliver better situational awareness at a more localized level through the Sea Sultan. Basically, the Sea Sultan would complement the air picture generated by the PN’s surface warships by providing over-the-horizon awareness. But the PN will still rely on the large-scale air picture provided by the tri-services ‘Recognized Air and Maritime Picture’ (RAMP) set up.

Overall, the main constraining factor for the Sea Sultan is the PN’s limited fiscal budget. Though the PN is entering a significant growth stage across its surface, sub-surface, and aviation domains, it must function within limits. If the PN sought a P-8-type solution (which may have been doable, had it selected the Airbus A320, for example), it would have had to cut down on other programs, like new surface warships or new submarines. Thus, the Sea Sultan will be cost-sensitive by design.

Controlling cost will also determine how much expertise Pakistan will acquire from the project. It is likely that the transfer-of-technology/expertise element will be limited. First, Pakistan’s aerospace capabilities are not at a stage where it can independently design and implement a conversion of this scale. Second, it is possible that the main contractor – i.e., Leonardo – could absorb some of the overhead, non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs of the program. In return, Leonardo will get a system it can market to other users as an alternative to the costlier P-8. In fact, Leonardo would also have a largely ITAR-free solution, which would give it a competitive edge in certain markets when it comes to highly capable LRMPAs.

However, developing the know-how to convert commercial aircraft into LRMPAs and other special mission aircraft would be valuable. Certain special mission assets can be strategically valuable, so some suppliers may restrict access to certain technologies or attach excessive prices to projects. The PAF faced a similar issue with the Erieye AEW&C repair project, which forced it to carryout the repair work locally. Building a domestic conversion capacity for the LRMPAs could allow for in-house repair and, possibly, ability to add more aircraft to the fleet (or if need be, replace lost units).

Furthermore, a domestic capacity to design and configure special mission aircraft is advantageous from a security standpoint. It would allow Pakistan to remove external parties from the sourcing and integration process, thus reducing the number of outside entities with knowledge about critical programs. This would be critical for sensitive programs like electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft like the Falcon DA-20.

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