The Russian navy has prepared a revised specification for a next-generation anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft that permits using the Tupolev Tu-204/214 narrow-body twinjets as a platform. Dubbed PLAK, the Russian acronym for “Antisubmarine Aviation Complex”, the future asset could be broadly similar in performance to the U.S. Navy’s Boeing P-8A Poseidon, which is based on the Boeing 737-800 platform.
As well as being close to the P-8A in size and payload/range characteristics, the Tu-204/214 is also available cheaply on the secondhand market. Over 20 such jetliners are stored following their withdrawal from commercial airline service. Another dozen could be assembled by the Tu-214 manufacturing plant in Kazan (KAPO), and that of the Tu-204 in Ulyanovsk (Aviastar), using pre-manufactured parts from their stocks.
The ready availability of the Tupolev jetliners makes this option look more suitable than ordering all-new ASW aircraft of a special design, such as the A-40/42 Albatros amphibian developed by Beriev to Soviet navy specifications. Since the mid-1990s, the Russian navy has wavered between the Tu-204/214 and A-40/42, as both options have benefits and advantages.
Although more expensive to build and maintain, and requiring costly ground infrastructure, the amphibian aircraft can employ recoverable (non-expendable) “combat robots”. A fashionable novelty in marine warfare, these are unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) carrying sonars, magnetic and other anomaly detectors, along with other sensor equipment to sniff for hostile surface and submersible warships in the search area. These “combat robots” would supplement such classic ASW equipment as acoustic sonobuoys.
The Russian navy has long been seeking suitable platforms that would supplement and then replace the three dedicated ASW aircraft of Soviet origin. Today, the service operates a handful of Be-12 “Mail” flying boats, 20 Tu-142 “Bear-Fs”, and 15 of the Ilyushin Il-38 “May” (an adaptation of the Il-18 airliner), including eight recently converted into the Il-38N version featuring the Novella (non-exportable Sea Dragon) sensor suite.
Even though all the three continue to be upgraded, their current fleet has become increasingly worn-out and outdated. While the surviving Be-12s are to be replaced by SAR and patrol versions of the Be-200 amphibian twinjet, a suitable replacement for the other two types has yet to be selected. The PLAK using the Tu-204/214 platform is viewed as an affordable option, and also shares commonality with other special-mission platforms already in service with the Russian Armed Forces. These include a pair of Tu-214R reconnaissance aircraft with phased-array side-looking radars and a pair of Tu-214ON photo-reconnaissance airplanes employed on the “Open Skies” program. Also, other governmental bodies—such as the Presidential Air Detachment—use the Tu-204/214 aircraft in flying control post, relay and liaison versions.
Last year, the chief of aviation with the Russian navy, General Igor Kozhin, spoke of the need to induct a next-generation ASW aircraft by 2030. The minister for industry and trade, Denis Manturov, responded in August with mention of a special Tu-204/214 version able to meet the given requirement. As a consequence, Tupolev has resumed work on the Tu-204P project, which began in the early 1990s and subsequently experienced several halts and restarts. The design house insists that the jetliner platform offers sufficient range and on-station patrol time, while ensuring good levels of comfort and working conditions for the crew.
In its turn, Beriev points to the Be-200’s and A-40/42’s ability to operate from water, which makes possible operations such as the open-ocean rescue of crews of crippled submarines and surface ships, and the ability to deploy and recover “combat robots”.