Paris Air Show

Vigilant nations hungry for multirole watchdogs

 - December 13, 2006, 7:40 AM

The proliferation and diversification of international terrorism and crime is fueling demand for next-generation patrol aircraft for surveillance of airspace, sea and land. Nations such as Russia, Ukraine, China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Iran want a single aircraft platform for such roles. The countries have identified a need for affordable, long-endurance airplanes with advanced sensory and data processing set for peace and wartime use, based on a new generation of civil airplanes.

China, for one, has reportedly selected the Beriev Be-200 amphibious jet, while the others continue to assess potentially suitable platforms. Russia, India and Iran favor Antonov’s An-140. Such airplanes from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States appear to offer credible alternatives to more costly Western special-mission platforms. While each country has unique surveillance requirements, they all tend to prefer commercial airplanes for their lower ownership and operational costs.

China primarily has mostly shown interest in a multi-mission, extended-range aircraft to supplement its growing navy in the open sea. India has opened competition for an affordable maritime patrol aircraft to supersede the long-serving Dornier 228. Iran seeks a replacement for its aging P-3B Orion fleet on sea border control and law enforcement duties. Malaysia covets new ways to counter piracy in the Malacca straits. Like other prominent Asia-Pacific countries, South Korea wants to keep an eye on neighbors it does not trust.

China is close to placing an order for 10 weaponized Be-200Ps, yet the deal may take a few months to complete. Information on the customized Chinese Be-200 remains scarce. Since no other Russian companies make modern surveillance sets, the aircraft will likely receive the Leninets Sea Dragon package.

Already in Russian service on search-and-rescue and firefighting duties, the Be-200 has recently undergone an improvement program. According to Ministry for Emergencies (MChS) deputy head Yuri Vorobiev, the Be-200 has undergone 300 modifications during the program. MChS operates three Be-200ChS, and awaits four more in 2006 and 2007.

With a maximum afterscooping weight of 94,000 pounds, the Be-200 is a scaled-down derivative of the 209,000-pound A-40/42 Albatross of the Russian Navy. Both types can land on water, which makes them valuable assets for the navy because it can render help to ship and submarine crews in the open sea, as well as put inspectors onto a suspicious vessel.

The much smaller Beriev Be-103 amphibian, already in commercial Chinese service and now on offer to Malaysia and Indonesia, can fill the same role. Operators in those countries are considering Berievs for coastal patrol and anti-smuggler missions in the straits with intensive sea traffic. In this role the Be-103 promises better cost efficiency than slower and more expensive helicopters. When required, it can deliver inspectors onto a suspicious motorboat, or open up with machine-gun fire if the vessel refuses to stop.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has identified a need for 13 tactical aircraft for sea and land border surveillance, and for use mainly in counter-insurgency operations in hot-spots such as Chechnya. Last year the service opened talks with Aviacor on a customized An-140. Deliveries would occur between 2005 and 2015, at a rate of one or two aircraft a year. FSB has already selected the Leninets Sea Dragon surveillance kit.

Aviacor chairman Sergei Likharev told Aviation International News that its first An-140 will fly this summer and a second by year-end. “We agreed to proceed in summer 2005, after our first aircraft flies,” Likharev said. He admitted repeated delays, partly caused by the need to incorporate numerous changes to the An-140 design that Antonov introduced after Aviacor had prepared its first three airframes in the mid-1990s.

India Calling

Meanwhile, India has sent tenders for modern patrol and electronic warfare aircraft to equip air force, naval, coastal patrol and interior units. The respective contenders have offered the CASA C-235/295, Avions de Transport Regional ATR 42, Antonov An-140-100, Embraer EMB 145, Gulfstream G550 and other regional and business aviation aircraft.

The first phase of the tender process involves the selection of two suitable platforms. The choice of mission equipment constitutes the second phase. The success of the Ilyushin Il-38 and Tupolev Tu-142 upgrade programs appear likely key factors in the contest.

The Indian Navy plans to maintain three-tier air reconnaissance capability (unmanned aerial vehicles, the Dornier 228 and either the Tu-142 or the Il-38). Chief of naval staff Admiral Arun Prakash said that the P-3C Orion is “a strong contender” to meet the Navy requirement for large patrol aircraft. The ex-U.S. Navy machines could present a contingency option should Russia fail to deliver the promise on the upgraded Il-38SD (featuring the Sea Dragon set).

The Sea Dragon system is central to Russia’s own plans to upgrade its Il-38s and Tu-142s. This multi-mission package works off a single digital mission computer, and features modular architecture and a common databus. It encompasses five subsystems: anti-submarine warfare, sea and land surface surveillance (electronically scanned radar), search-and-rescue and ecological monitoring (elecro-optics), as well as electronic support measures.

The radar can detect such small targets as emergency beacons and can work in synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and inverse SAR modes. It can detect aerial targets at a distance of 56 miles and 200 miles at sea. It can track 32 targets simultaneously and provide targeting for precision guidance munitions.

Four years ago India awarded Russian state arms vendor Rosoboronexport the $205 million contract for the upgrade of five aircraft. Flown in early 2001, an Il-38SD prototype began customer acceptance trials in November 2002. An Ilyushin spokesman insisted that the Il-38 program remains in compliance with the contract and that the manufacturer continues to prepare the aircraft for delivery. The program has extended their lifespan to 40 years, but the acceptance trials have yet to prove the Sea Dragon’s advertised performance.

Delays with the Russian solution prompted the Indians to ask Antonov to look for Israeli subcontractors. An Antonov spokesman told AIN that Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit sensor sets might now find their way into the An-140MP. If it wins the tender, Antonov will deliver the aircraft. The developer undertakes integration and installation of the mission equipment into airframes built at Kharkov Aircraft Manufacturing Company (KSAMC).

“Our offer is Ukrainian, with no Russian involvement,” KSAMC general director Pavel Naumenko told AIN. “The An-140 is the best from the price/quality/performance viewpoint, and it demonstrates good operational economics in commercial service.” An initial order could be as small as two An-140MPs. “It is indeed a small quantity, but that’s normal Indian practice,” Naumenko said. “They offer a small number from a foreign supplier and then move on to license production of a respectable number.”

If the An-140MP wins in India, it will stand a good chance in Malaysia. Iran, where Esfahan-based HESA company builds the IRAN-140, has considered a special customized version. Antonov and HESA have been working on military versions, a tactical ramp transport and an MP, for the Iranian armed forces.

“Iran’s maritime patrol aircraft will be somewhat different from India’s,” Naumenko said. “They are still to choose a mission equipment supplier.” HESA, which would join the program, has indicated that it prefers Thales, but the Iranian government may opt for a Russian alternative.