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Pakistan Navy Reportedly Seeking a New Maritime Patrol Aircraft

As per Dawn News, the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) – Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi – stated that the PN was seeking a new, jet-powered maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).[1]

The new MPA is to replace the PN’s aging Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion MPAs, which it acquired in two batches (in the 1990s and late 2000s/early 2010s) from the US. However, the PN lost two of its planes in 2011 due to a terrorist attack on PNS Mehran. Based on available public data, that would leave the PN’s P-3C fleet at seven aircraft, but this is not an official figure.

In July, the PN also inducted the first of two ATR-72s converted into MPAs. It appears that these are slotted to replace the PN’s aging F-27s. However, it is now clear that the PN is not intending to replace its P-3Cs with the ATR-72; rather, a different – and jet-powered – system is being sought.

Speaking to media (via Dawn News), Adm. Abbasi stated that the PN is “ready to acquire them (new MPAs) from any source, including the US.”[2] In terms of the latter, the CNS appears to be referring to the Boeing P-8I Poseidon, a variant of which is also in use by the Indian Navy.

However, given Pakistan’s tenuous relationship with the US and, not least, its financial limitations, the P-8I may be untenable. Granted, a long-term loan could (in theory) factor into the situation, but even if the PN succeeds in procuring the P-8I, it could deal with difficult end-user requirements (e.g. US government monitoring, just as the Pakistan Air Force had endured with its F-16 Block-52+ purchase).

In terms of options available today, the only jet-powered MPA the PN could plausibly pursue in the near-term is the Swordfish offered by the Swedish defence giant Saab. Not only is it an available package, but the PN should not have difficulty procuring most of its subsystems.

Why Does Pakistan Want to Replace the P-3C?

Despite its age, the P-3C provides the PN with range and payload that it cannot readily get from elsewhere (except for the US, but the P-8 Poseidon is unlikely to be available). The P-3C has a payload of 9,000 kg as well as range and mission radius (with three hours on-station) of 3,835 km and 2,494 km, respectively.[3] However, the P-3C’s payload is distributed across 10 external hardpoints and an internal bomb-bay; this has made for markedly strong anti-ship warfare (AShW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

Thus, a transition a near-term option such as the Bombardier-based Saab Swordfish would require trade-offs between the loss of physical capacity in-exchange for newer, next-generation systems. The fact that the PN is apparently seeking a new platform indicates that there is a limit to how long it can fly the P-3C. Otherwise, the P-3C is an inherently strong package that, in the absence of an aging (and irrecoverable or non-renewable airframe) and dwindling pool of spare parts, simply works.

The challenge with legacy aircraft, including ones that have seen significant manufacturing runs and wide adoption as the P-3C, is that the capacity to support them is increasingly limited. For the PN, it is difficult to keep securing spare parts (especially as there are other P-3C operators competing for those parts) and to sustain the platform for the long-term. The PN is reaching a point where to sustain an effective AShW and ASW MPA fleet, it will need a next-generation platform.

However, the market for next-generation, long-range MPAs is dominated by the P-8 Poseidon. Granted, the PN has hinted towards it, but a combination of high upfront costs, a tenuous relationship with the US and sensitive technology (which Washington will want to guard against potential Chinese exposure) will thwart a potential P-8 purchase. Besides conceptual ideas (such as an Airbus A319-based MPA), the only jet-powered MPA option that is ready for production today is the Global 6000-based Swordfish.

Why Saab’s Swordfish is the Only Plausible Option Today

If the PN is seeking a solution in the near-term, then it has no alternative to the Saab Swordfish based on the Bombardier Global 6000. The reasons for this are threefold: Firstly, there simply is no other aircraft that would meet the bill for an AShW and ASW-capable jet-powered MPA. Secondly, Saab has completed the necessary conceptual study and integration work. Thirdly, the PN has already procured (via the ATR-72 MPA) some of the Swordfish’s key subsystems, such as its Leonardo Seaspray 7000-series radar.

Secondly, compared to the P-8, the Swordfish is the lower-cost option. According to Saab, the Swordfish can be had for two-thirds the acquisition price of the P-8, while its long-term support costs are only half that of the P-8.[4] South Korea agreed to procure six P-8A for $2.10 billion US, i.e. $350 million US for each P-8A.[5] As per Boeing, the cost of manufacturing 17 P-8A in 2017 was $2.2 billion, i.e. $129 million US per aircraft.[6] Based on this figure, the Swordfish would have an upfront acquisition cost of $85 million US.

The $350 m figure quoted for South Korea also includes a support package (i.e. training, spare parts, etc). It is unclear how long this support package will last, but for simplicity’s sake, let us assume 10 years. Saab said it would cost half as much to support the Swordfish, i.e. $110.5 million US for 10 years. This figure was calculated by halving the difference between South Korea’s total cost and the P-8A production cost

Thus, the total cost of each Swordfish MPA would be $195.5 m – i.e. procurement plus training and long-term maintenance and support. Yes, this is a high cost, but it is markedly lower than that of the P-8A and, potentially, can be split into multiple procurement phases with annual payment installments.

Bombardier Global 6000

Bombardier introduced the Global 6000 to the market in 1997. The Canadian aircraft manufacturer is still manufacturing the original design as well as an improved version. In terms of the latter, i.e. Global 6500, reportedly has an acquisition cost of $56 million US.[7] The Global 6000 is powered by two Rolls-Royce BR-700 turbofan engines (from the UK). It is unclear how much of the Global 6000 is restricted by ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations), but there do not appear to be any glaring restrictions.

When configured into an MPA, the Global 6000-based Swordfish has four external hardpoints for use with anti-ship missiles (AShM) and ASW torpedoes.[8] According to Saab, with a time on-station of 7.3 hours, the Swordfish MPA has a ferry range of 1,852 km.[9] Its range is shorter than that of the P-3C, but it still covers Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and, above all, can loiter for extended periods (up to 11.5 hours if restrained to a shorter ferry flight of 370 km).[10] However, there is a noticeable trade-off on payload.

In this respect, the PN would have to offset the payload gap by supplanting the P-3Cs with a larger number of Swordfish MPAs. Alternatively, it can try orienting its training and tactics to focus on finding submarines and, ultimately, ensuring that the Swordfish’s limited payload is efficiently used.

Electronic Subsystems

The Swordfish MPA’s electronics suite comprises of commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology as well as proprietary systems belonging to Saab. In terms of COTS, the MPA is equipped with a FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensor turret, a Leonardo Seaspray 7500E active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar and General Dynamics Mission Systems Canada and CAE’s magnetic anomaly detector (MAD).[11][12] The PN has already procured the Seaspray and Star SAFIRE through the ATR-72 MPA.[13]

In terms of Saab’s proprietary systems, the bulk of it appears to be the Swordfish’s combat management suite (CMS) and the integration work necessary to pair the Swordfish with Saab’s RBS-15-series of AShM and the Saab Lightweight Torpedo (SLWT). However, the use of Saab’s CMS (and its sensor fusion engine) need not preclude the Swordfish from carrying other AShW and ASW munitions. Provided there is enough shelf-life, the PN might prefer integration with the P-3C’s Harpoon Block-II AShM and Mk46 ASW torpedo.

Anti-Ship Warfare and Anti-Submarine Weapons

If Saab’s munitions cannot be had and integration with US munitions is untenable, the PN could seek third-party munitions. Granted, there will be non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs for integrating such AShM and ASW torpedoes, but that would be a cost the PN could be willing to absorb. Beyond this, it would be untenable. It is one thing to require customizations on the margins, but for the most part, the PN’s pattern has been to procure complete and available solutions, not concepts or proposals.

Alternatives

The limited focus of this piece – suggesting that the PN’s only option is the Swordfish – stems from these key points: First, the Swordfish is an actionable system where the subsystems are available and the main contractor – i.e. Saab – is able to implement it. Second, no other alternative (to the P-8) is this close in the way of being available. Yes, one can look at integrating the Swordfish suite to another platform, but unless Saab conducts the necessary studies (without charging NRE fees to Pakistan), it is untenable.

If not the Global 6000-based Swordfish, the PN can simply wait for another actionable project. In this case, it can wait for China to develop a suitable solution through its own subsystems and weapons. This would place the potential timeframe further into the future. The alternative would be to wait for a solution using the Airbus A319, potentially with the Swordfish suite. However in either case, the PN is unlikely to push a project, it will likely seek a solution that is actionable (i.e. not in need of studies).

Finally, the Kawasaki P-1 from Japan could be a dark horse candidate. Despite being comparable to the P-8 (matching the Poseidon in range, payload and endurance), Pakistan has never procured big-ticket items from Japan. Moreover, Japan would have to sustain pressure from the US and India. It is also unclear how China and Japan would react to their respective technologies interacting with one another in Pakistan.

[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 (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Lockheed P-3 Orion.” Forecast International. 2006. URL: https://www.forecastinternational.com/archive/disp_pdf.cfm?DACH_RECNO=256 (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[4] “Avalon 2017: Saab tries to hook NZ on Swordfish.” Shephard Media. 02 March 2017. URL: https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/imps-news/avalon-2017-saab-tries-hook-nz-swordfish/ (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[5] Press Release. “Korea – P-8A Aircraft and Associated Support.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency. 13 September 2018. URL: http://dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/korea-p-8a-aircraft-and-associated-support (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[6] Press Release “$2.2 Billion Boeing Contract Funds P-8 Aircraft for U.S., Australia and U.K.” Boeing. 03 April 2017. URL: http://boeing.mediaroom.com/2017-04-03-2-2-Billion-Boeing-Contract-Funds-P-8-Aircraft-for-U-S-Australia-and-U-K (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[7]Allison Lampert. “Bombardier launches longer-range variants of Global business jets.” Reuters. 27 May 2018. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bombardier-businessjets/bombardier-launches-longer-range-variants-of-global-business-jets-idUSKCN1IS0OG (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[8] Press Release. “Saab Swordfish MPA Delivers True Multi-Role Maritime Air Power.” Saab. 16 May 2017. URL: https://saabgroup.com/media/news-press/news/2017-05/saab-swordfish-mpa-delivers-true-multi-rolemaritime-air-power/ (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[9] Product Information. “Swordfish MPA: A New Era in Maritime Air Power.” Saab. URL: https://saab.com/globalassets/commercial/air/airborne-solutions/airborne-surveillance/swordfish-maritime-patrol-aircraft/swordfish-datasheet.pdf (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Donald. “Long-range patrol.” Jane’s Show Daily for Canada’s Global Defence & Security Trade Show. 31 May 2018. URL: https://www.defenceandsecurity.ca/UserFiles/Image/CANSEC2018/Website/Janes/CANSECShowDaily_2018DayTwo_web.pdf (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[12] David Donald. “Swordfish Maritime Patrol/Anti-Sub Platform Goes Global.” Air International (AIN) Online. 17 February 2016. URL: https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2016-02-17/swordfish-maritime-patrol/anti-sub-platform-goes-global (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

[13] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Navy ATR72MPA to fly in October.” Warney’s World of Military Aviation. 28 June 2017. URL: http://warnesysworld.com/pakistan-navy-atr72mpa-fly-october/ (Last Accessed: 19 September 2018).

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