Maritime surveillance is an important requirement for most countries with interests in the South China Sea. The ongoing geo-political situation in the region and Asia Pacific as a whole, means that most nations need to keep an eye on their neighbours, particularly the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The South China Sea occupies a central position regarding the Indo-Pacific Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) connecting Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to South East Asia and North America. It needs to monitored around the clock by Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs). Ristian Superiyanto, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, told the author in November 2014: “These SLOCs are underpinning the economic attractions of the region where there is a significant amount of trade carried out (on the high seas) and by ship. The shipping density centres around the South China Sea. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) are also being challenged and economic sovereignties are being ignored by the PRC where there are several claimants to a number of areas of the South China Sea.” This stretch of water is home to a number of maritime and territorial disputes, mainly focused on the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos parts, or all, of which are claimed by Brunei-Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, the PRC, the Republic of China and Vietnam.
The Main Threat
The Beijing government has drawn up a demarcation line in the South China Sea, known as the ‘nine-dash line’ and claims all the territory behind it, which includes the Spratley and Paracel archipelagos. Beijing’s motivation is thought to centre of the PRC’s hunger for natural resources: A report by the United States Geological Survey in 2010 estimated that the South China Sea could hold oil reserves of at least 750 million barrels of oil. To this end, the PRC is now asserting itself more in the region which has seen Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Sukhoi Su-30MKK fighters manoeuvring extremely close to US Navy Boeing P-8A and Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion MPAs as witnessed in August 2014. Even more alarming for many nations is that the Su-30MKKs, once equipped with air-to-air refuelling, could reach the south of Malaysia, Singapore and even parts of Indonesia.
The PLAN has also recently increased its blue water capabilities to a higher level. Its Liaoning carrier, commissioned in 2012 was declared combat ready in November 2016. Meanwhile, the PLAN acquired the former Russian Navy Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier in the late 1990s and turned into what it is now; an arguably tangible threat to stability in the South China Sea. This is of real concern to the US Navy, as is the PLAN’s weaponry which includes the Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation CM-302 active radar/infrared guided anti-ship missile. The Liaoning can be equipped with 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, a locally built version of the Sukhoi Su-33 fighter; enough to intimidate and destroy many of the navy vessels operated by the countries opposing the PRC’s maritime expansion. Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a London-based think-tank, told AMR that: “The PLAN appears to have a regional maritime strategy of which carrier-based organic air power, when fully developed, will be a key element: “For the moment the PLAN is comparatively early in the development of multi-role carrier aviation, but its direction of travel would seem clear. In regional terms it is a capability that over time cannot be ignored.”
The US Navy
The US government is certainly cautious of the PRC’s aspirations, and maritime patrol aircraft are a key element to keeping an eye on what the latter is up to, and acting if required. Not too surprisingly, this keeps the US military busy. The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet is the largest forward-deployed US fleet, with the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean coming under its responsibility, which includes the South China Sea and it is there to protect US interests and those of its allies. As a component unit, Combined Task Force (CTF) 72 leads patrol, reconnaissance and surveillance forces in support of the Seventh Fleet. It promotes regional security and the enhancement of theatre security operations through multilateral engagements to build reconnaissance and surveillance capability within the fleet and within partner forces.
Not too surprisingly, most of the leadership of CTF-72 has MPA experience. The current commander, Captain Richard W. Pest has served four P-3C squadrons as well as serving as the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Requirements Officer at Norfolk airbase, Virginia. He has amongst his responsibilities six P-8A aircraft based at Kadena airbase, on the Japanese island of Okinawa; nine P-3Cs located at Atsugi airbase on Honshu Island and two EP-3E electronic intelligence gathering aircraft at Andersen airbase on the island of Guam. The P-8A is a relative newcomer to the region, with the first aircraft deploying to Kadena airbase in December 2013. Since then more US Navy squadrons have passed through Kadena airbase as they have re-equipped from the P-3C to the P-8A. The P-8A has an impressive airborne maritime surveillance capability. Developed from the Boeing 737-800 airliner, it has been designed for long-range Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW); anti-surface warfare; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Equipped with advanced sensors and mission systems, including Raytheon’s AN/APY-10 multifunction radar thought to transmit in X-band (8.5-10.68 gigahertz), which provides high-resolution radar images plus an acoustic system that is said to boast four times the processing capacity of the ASW systems used by the P-3C. Lethality is provided by the aircraft’s Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon Block-II active radar homing-guided anti-ship missiles, plus The onboard advanced mission system ensures maximum interoperability in the battle space. With Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles, Mk 82 depth charges and Raytheon Mk.54 lightweight torpedoes as well as over 100 deployable sonobuoys for detecting submarines
Supplementing the P-8A, will be the US Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system intended to enhance maritime surveillance capabilities. The BAMS is focused on the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAV, the naval version of the firms’ RQ-4B Block-40 Global Hawk. This aircraft will be employed to enhance maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Two MQ-4Cs should replace the EP-3Es currently based at Guam in 2018 but it at present it remains unclear where these aircraft will be based.
Singapore, which operates the Fokker-50 MPA is allowing the US Navy to deploy P-8As to the Republic of Singapore Air Force Tengah airbase. Back in December 2015, both countries committed to a new defence co-operation agreement which would see the regular deployment of P-8As that the US DOD said: “would allow it to enhance its presence in a part of Southeast Asia where its partners are increasingly asking it to operate more regularly.”
Key to any allied strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is interoperability. The Royal Australian Air Force, arguably more than most in the region, understands that. On 21st February 2014 it announced the acquisition of eight P-8As for a reported $3.6 billion, taking the interoperability of the US Navy and RAAF to the next level. Since then options for four more aircraft have been exercised, which will be delivered by March 2020. Another additional three are also set to be acquired, so that by the mid-2020s the RAAF is expected to have a fleet of 15 P-8As. In March 2014, Australia became the first foreign customer for the MQ-4C Triton, acquired to fulfil the unmanned element of the RAAF’s two-phased P-3C replacement effort. The seven unmanned aircraft are expected to cost around $2.5 billion, according to open sources. By acquiring this UAV, the RAAF will be mirroring the US Navy’s joint manned and unmanned MPA force currently developing.
During the first P-8A delivery ceremony held at the RAAF’s Edinburgh airbase in South Australia on 17th November 2016, Air Marshal Leo Davies, the chief of the air staff, told reporters: “The P-8A is certainly the future, it is a generational leap that we are going to make in the maritime domain. It has greater range, it certainly has greater connectivity, advanced acoustics and a radar system that is world class … When we integrate this with (the MQ-4C) in the early 2020s, with the (‘Hobart’ class destroyer), Future Frigate and both our submarine classes (the ‘Collins’ class conventional hunter-killer submarine and her replacement) we’ll have a fifth generation maritime force.”
India and Pakistan
There is no love lost between the two nations, which have fought four overt armed conflicts since 1947, so it is not surprising that much of their operational capacity and capability is geared towards one another, although the PRC plays a role in India’s strategic postures given that country’s occupation of the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir claimed by India, and India’s occupation of Arunachal Pradesh, claimed by the PRC. The Indian Navy operates eight Boeing P-8I Neptunes, purchased in a $2.1 billion deal signed on 1st January 2009, which were inducted into service between December 2012 and November 2015. In June 2016 India’s Cabinet Committee on Security announced it had approved an option for four additional aircraft in a deal worth $1 billion, with the first aircraft expected to be delivered in 2019. Unlike the US Navy, RAAF and the RAF (Royal Air Force), which announced its intention to procure nine aircraft in November 2015, the Indian P-8Is have a Telephonics AN/APS-143 OceanEye X-band airborne surveillance radar and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), which detects disturbances in magnetic fields caused by large metallic objects such as submarines. These P-8Is are thought to conduct operations over much of the Indian Ocean keeping a watch on PLAN and Pakistan Navy submarines. According to Indian media reports, deployments of the P-8Is have been made to the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the India Ocean near the Malacca Strait. The location is a chokepoint in the eastern Indian Ocean that bisects Malaysia, as well as other routes in the Indian Ocean keeping watch on military and commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Navy (PN) is flying seven P-3C-PUP (Pakistan Upgrade Programme) Orions from the navy’s Mehran airbase just outside Karachi. They can be armed with the Boeing AGM-84H SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile – Extended Response) satellite/infrared guided air-to-surface missile. Like its Indian counterparts, the Pakistan Navy’s MPA are on the lookout for submarines, chiefly Indian ones, but also perform overland reconnaissance missions supporting Pakistan Army counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Area region of northeast Pakistan. The PN has also acquired three second-hand ATR 72 turboprop transports, and after several years of operations as utility aircraft the PN has contracted Rheinland Air Services in Germany to upgrade two of them to the MPA role. They will be modified with a Leonardo Seaspray-7300 X-band airborne surveillance radar integrated into Aerodata AG’s Aerodata mission system, by Rheinland Air Service at Monchengladbach, in Germany, and being configured for the ASW role with torpedoes and depth charges. Marshal Aerospace based in Cambridge in eastern England has been contracted to do the design work on the aircraft. The first one is expected to enter service later this year.
Both will be a welcome addition to the Pakistan Navy’s aviation fleet, which is still recovering from the loss of the two P-3Cs in May 2011, when insurgents attacked the Mehran airbase. The Pakistan Navy’s Commander Imran Qureshi told me in 2014, “the PN has to cover some 86000 square nautical miles (295,000 square kilometres) of the Indian Ocean.” This area of water includes the country’s EEZ. Pakistan’s waters are strategically important because as Cdr. Qureshi told the author “20 percent of the world’s petroleum passes through the Strait of Hormuz to the west of the Gulf of Oman every year.”
There are several P-3C operators in the Asia-Pacific, Japan (over 100), New Zealand (six P-3K2s, as the aircraft was re-designated after being upgraded by L3 Communications), Taiwan (twelve) and the Republic of Korea (eight P-3C-III+ and eight new P-3CKs delivered in 2010). The latter can be armed with AGM-84 Block II ASHMs air-to-surface missiles. Japan is an interesting case having developed the purpose-built Kawasaki P-1 to eventually replace its P-3C aircraft. The first two aircraft were delivered to the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) on 26th March 2013. They have been joined by a further eight, with another three expected this year, and are based at Atsugi airbase. The P-1 has both a weapons bay and eight external hard points mounted on the wings. The JMSDF plans currently call for 70 P-1s to be ordered to replace its 100 plus P-3Cs. The sheer scale of its MPA fleet highlights Japan’s high level of perceived threat from the sea.
At some point in the future, when the US Navy stops supporting the P-3 family, choices on future replacements of this aircraft around the Asia-Pacific will need to be made. There are aircraft that could fulfil their role beyond the P-8A family and P-1, but there are now many new kids on the block including the Saab Swordfish maritime patrol aircraft, which can use either a Bombardier Q400 or Global 6000 turbofan transport, or the ATR-72 turboprop transport airframe. While the countries elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific are crying out for armed MPA in light of threats such as piracy, which continues to remain a concern in areas such as the Strait of Malacca, according to local reports, not to mention the ongoing tensions with the PRC discussed above, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are currently operating unarmed MPAs. With a limited defence budgets, for example Malaysia’s defence budget is expected to reduce in 2016, compared to previous years as discussed in Dzirhan Mahadzir’s Malaysia Tightens its Belt article in the April edition of AMR, all these countries have to think carefully about spending billions on new aircraft, but if they want to protect their sovereignty that is what they might have to do.
by Alan Warnes