Boeing P-8I takes off from Arakkonam, with a Tu-142 in the backdrop
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th March 17
For almost three decades, the Indian Navy’s giant, four-engine Tupolev-142MK-E has been the most feared aerial predator in Indian Ocean, the stuff of nightmares for Pakistani submarine crews.
On Wednesday, the 29-year era of the Tu-142 will draw to a close, when the 312nd Indian Navy Aviation Squadron (INAS - 312) at INS Rajali, at Arrakonam in Tamil Nadu retires these “long range maritime reconnaissance” (LRMR) aircraft.
In its place, the job of searching out and destroying enemy submarines in the waters off India’s coast will fall to the navy’s new fleet of a dozen Boeing P-8I aircraft.
In an indicator of shifting geopolitics, India paid $2.1 billion for eight P-8I anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, following that up with another, billion dollar contract for four more. After the eight Tu-142 and five Ilyushin-38 aircraft are all retired, LRMR --- which was the exclusive preserve of Soviet/Russian aircraft --- will be carried out entirely by American aircraft.
Since the Tu-142 first joined the Indian Navy in 1988, the aircraft has been one of the world’s most iconic and recognisable submarine hunters. The size of half a football field, the Tu-142 has four contra-rotating propeller engines (two propellers rotating in one direction, the other two in another) that allow it to fly 13,000 kilometres without refuelling. It is the world’s largest and faster turboprop aircraft, says the navy.
On ASW patrols close to the mainland, the Tu-142 can loiter (continuously monitor an area) for up to 10½ hours. Eleven crewmembers locate enemy submarines with sonobuoys and magnetic anomaly detectors (which pick up a submarine’s magnetic signature), which can then be destroyed with anti-submarine mines and torpedoes.
This capability has been maintained to the last, with one Tu-142 clocking 53 flying hours at Tropex 2017, the Indian Navy’s annual operational exercise, according to a naval spokesperson.
“The Tu-142 has lived its total technical life and it is no longer economically viable to keep it in service. Russia continues to operate its Tu-142 fleet, but the cold conditions they function in are much easier on the aircraft”, says the Flag Officer Naval Aviation, Rear Admiral Puneet Bahl.
The Tu-142M was the Soviet Union’s answer during the Cold War to America’s Polaris, the world’s first submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of 1,800 kilometres. After the Polaris became operational in 1960 on the submarine, USS George Washington, the Tupolev Design Bureau took a full decade to perfect the Tu-142M to keep track of US Navy missile submarines.
Designated the “Bear” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, for which the aircraft remained an enigma, more than a hundred Tu-142 variants were built for the Soviet, Russian, Ukrainian and Indian navies.
The Tu-142, like the MiG-25RB Foxbat reconnaissance aircraft, was a cutting-edge Soviet military platform that Moscow shared only with close allies that it regarded with special favour.
Like the Tu-142, the Boeing P-8 is operated by a handful of partners. Only the Indian and Australian navies fly the aircraft, while the US Navy will eventually operate a giant fleet of 117 aircraft.
Based on a Boeing 737-8/9 airframe, the P-8I has the world’s most modern radar sensors and a weapons package that includes the formidable Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile, Mark 54 torpedoes, and the Mark 52 depth charge.
In addition, the P-8I is data-linked with Indian submarines, to which it can pass on the location of any enemy submarine it detects. The Indian submarines can then zero-in on the intruder and fire torpedoes to destroy it.
Based on a commercial airliner’s airframe, the Boeing P-8I costs much less to operate, maintain and overhaul.