By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th Nov 15
Emphatically asserting the navy’s blue water capability, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on Friday dedicated to the nation its first squadron of eight P8-I long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMP) --- designated Indian Naval Air Squadron 312-A.
These cutting-edge aircraft will watch over vast tracts of the Indian Ocean and the waters along India’s 7,516-kilometre coastline. They are based at Indian Naval Ship Rajali (INS Rajali), a naval air station at Arakkonam, near Chennai.
Illustrating just how advanced the P8-I is, it has joined India’s navy at the same time as its US version, the P8-A (A-for-America, like I-for-India), is being inducted into the US Navy. The first American P8-As (of a fleet that will eventually number 117 aircraft) are deployed in Kadena, Japan, tracking Chinese submarines in the tense face-off in the eastern Pacific.
The P8-I consists of advanced sensors and weaponry integrated onto a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, modified with the enhanced wings of a 737-900 that allow weaponry to be mounted on them. This allows it to scour the ocean for pirates, suspicious cargo vessels, or hostile warships and submarines and destroy them reliably. The P8-I has the endurance to fly 1,100 kilometres to a patrol area, remain on station for six hours, and then comfortably fly back to base, a total mission time of ten hours. This endurance can be almost doubled with aerial refuelling.
The P-8I’s sensors scan for a range of threats. A Raytheon multi-mode radar detects aircraft, ships and submarines. Another belly-mounted radar looks back like an electronic rear-view-mirror. When an enemy submarine is suspected, sonobuoys are dropped onto the water; these radio back giveaway submarine sounds. A magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) on the P-8I’s tail also searches for submarines.
Four Harpoon anti-ship missiles on the P8-I's wing
Targets detected can be quickly engaged. The Harpoon missiles on the P8-I’s wing are amongst the world’s most formidable anti-ship weapons. Enemy submarines can be destroyed with five Mark 54 torpedoes housed in a special warmed compartment in the aircraft’s belly, from where they are launched. Submarines can also be engaged with the Mark 82 depth charge, which is standard US Navy equipment. Alternatively, the P8-I, which is data-linked with Indian submarines, can pass on the location of the enemy submarine. Indian submarines can then zero-in on the intruder and fire torpedoes to destroy it.
Given these capabilities and endurance, the P8-I that flew Parrikar to Arakkonam this morning from Port Blair in the Andamans, was barely stretching its muscles. Parrikar complimented the squadron for mastering the P8-I quickly, and for carrying out the world’s first successful firing of the air-launched Harpoon Block II missile.
Parrikar also acknowleded the P8-I squadron’s participating in the so-far unsuccessful international search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014.
The first of eight P8-Is that India bought for $2.1 billion from The Boeing Company arrived on May 15, 2013, followed on schedule by the remaining seven aircraft. Negotiations are on for another four P8-Is under the “options clause” of the contract.
The P8-I will eventually replace the Indian Navy’s five ageing Russian Tu-142 Bear LRMP aircraft that were bought from the Soviet Union in 1988. These are likely to remain in service until the next four P8-Is are received, after which they would be retired.
To augment the surveillance and reconnaissance capability provided by twelve P8-Is, the navy is also proceeding with acquiring eight new Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, and a fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
Boeing executives who had earlier talked to Business Standard were optimistic that India would eventually buy 25-35 P8-I aircraft, given the growing need to obtain “maritime domain awareness” over the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy discharges the role of regional gendarme.