Russia’s Ministry of Defense has issued a contract for the modernization of the Navy’s fleet of Ilyushin Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft. The Novella mission system will be installed in an unspecified but “large” number of aircraft serving in the Northern Fleet, making them Il-38Ns. Of the 59 aircraft produced between 1967 and 1972, some 18 are currently in operation. The work was initially planned for the Ministry of Defence’s aircraft repair plant No. 20 at Pushkino, but instead the MoD has contracted UAC’s Ilyushin and Myasishchev to undertake it at the Zhukovsky airbase near Moscow.
The Novella is another version of the Sea Dragon mission system that was designed by the Leninets company in St. Petersburg and exported to India for an upgrade to five Il-38s serving with the Indian Navy. This $150 million contract was placed in 2001, but delays in development and problems in meeting the specification prompted the Indian Navy to halt contract payments temporarily. The Sea Dragon system was supposed to track 32 targets simultaneously (ships, submarines, mines, aircraft) within a 320-km radius, with aerial target detection up to 90 km away. The Indian Navy eventually accepted the aircraft in 2010, but dropped plans to install the system on eight larger Tu-142MKI maritime patrol and attack aircraft, opting instead to replace them with the Boeing P-8I Poseidon. Together with the Su-30MKI fighter, the Il-38SD is to be armed with the air-launched version of the BrahMos PJ-10 supersonic cruise missile. It will supplement the Kh-35 Uran and Sea Eagle subsonic anti-ship missiles already in the airplane’s arsenal, and for which the Indian examples were outfitted with external hard points on the fuselage sides.
Unlike the Sea Dragon, the Novella has a non-exportable electronic reconnaissance module. The core system is based on modern digital computers and features two operator consoles each with two LCD screens and the commander’s “big picture” tactical situation on a large LCD; a highly sensitive magnetic anomaly detector; a high-resolution thermal imager; and various other sensors. Research and development started in the 1980s, leading to a prototype trials aircraft in 2001. The ambitious program suffered repeated delays and several revisions of the original specification, driven by the need to add new technologies that became available over time.
The decision to upgrade the Il-38s was a hard one for the MoD, which long hesitated whether to outfit a relatively small fleet needing extensive airframe life extension work. The Indian aircraft have received a 40-year life extension. The Il-38N retains the original airplane’s crew of seven, 68-tonne mtow and 5.5- to 8.5-ton internal payload capability for various buoys, torpedoes, mines and depth charges.
The Russian Navy already has one Il-38N (side number 15). It has been employed on operational trials since 2011 and on combat duty since January this year. This airplane is a specimen for other Il-38s to be reworked with the Novella system.