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Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Role: Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) are designed for persistence (extended periods of operating time) over water. Although equipped for combat, MPAs are also used in non-combat roles such as search and rescue. MPAs have a variety of purposes including anti-submarine warfare (ASW, sub-surface combat and operations), anti-surface or ship warfare (ASuW, naval warfare concerning combatants on the surface of water), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), or search and rescue (SAR) missions.

One of the most important functions of maritime patrol aircraft is to keep shipping lanes open and safe for commerce and travel. The availability of relatively inexpensive attack submarines (such as the Russian-built diesel-electric Kilo-class subs priced at $200 million) makes indispensable the maintenance of capable maritime patrol aircraft. As such, MPAs are specifically equipped to carry out submarine operations by, for example, deploying directional frequency and ranging (DIFAR) sonobuoys (disposable hydrophones or sonar systems which aid in tracking submarines using target motion analysis) or carrying magnetic anomaly detectors (MADs, on the P-3 Orion) which can sense the magnetic field displacement of heavy submarines. Other sensors commonly found on MPAs include ELINT, radar (for surface movements such as wave displacement), and infrared (for exhaust streams and other heat emissions).

The drone revolution is also impacting the field of maritime patrol. For surveillance and intelligence missions, maritime patrol crafts must also be able to loiter over an area for a long amount of time or cover vast distances quickly. Unmanned aerial systems are advantaged in this regard and will likely be replacing much of the manned aircraft around which the military’s maritime patrol capabilities are currently structured. A new platform known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) uses the unmanned MQ-4C Triton for persistent wide-area surveillance.

Models in Service:

United States Coast Guard (USCG), United States Navy (USN)

HC-130 Hercules USCG HC-130B 5 Lockheed Martin The HC-130 is used as a search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) vehicle for the US Coast Guard. The Hercules provides heavy air transport for a variety of missions including airdropping life-rafts or oil pollution equipment. Equipped with a belly-mounted surface search rescue radar, some variants are also built for ice patrol in arctic climates, as well as narcotics-interdiction missions.
HC-130H 22
HC-130J 6
HC-144 Ocean Sentry USCG HC-144A 17 Airbus Military A medium range surveillance aircraft, the Ocean Sentry is equipped with an advanced avionics suite including Mission System Pallets (a roll-on/roll-off electronic data compiler) and an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) radar. The Ocean Sentry is capable of short take-off and landing (STOL) from soft and short runways. Utilized in disaster response missions including the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy, the HC-144 is part of the Coast Guard’s recapitalization program – Integrated Deepwater System.
P-3 Orion USN P-3C 154 Lockheed Martin Originally a land-based anti-submarine aircraft, the Orion’s role has evolved to include battlefield surveillance and has now shifted focus towards littoral areas in an anti-surface warfare capacity. The P-3C is equipped with an advanced electronic support measures (ESM) suite including: a radar detection system, an electro-optical turret with forward looking infrared (FLIR, a target imager which can sense infrared radiation), and Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) which can detect ships beyond visual range and ID them by their outline. With four T-56 turboprop engines, the Orion is also weaponized with the AGM-84 Harpoon (an anti-ship missile), the AGM-84K SLAM-ER (a long range precision cruise missile), and the AGM-65 Maverick (for short-range targets).
P-8 Poseidon USN P-8A 15 Boeing Based on the Boeing 737-800 fuselage, Boeing 737-900 wings with raked wingtips, and containing two CFM-56 turbofan engines, the highly automated Poseidon was designed to replace the more manual Orion. The P-8A features a state-of-the-art avionics suite: a Flight Management Computer with open architecture (making it easily upgradable and reconfigurable), autopilot, five mission crew workstations with touchscreen display and data linkage. Their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities include: MX-20HD digital EO/IR sensor turrets by L-3 Communications Wescam; AN/APY-10 radar by Raytheon with AESA and multiple modes including synthetic aperture radar (SAR) with multiple resolution strip map, ISAR, and moving target indicator (MTI); and, lastly, a storage of up to 100 pneumatically-launched rotary sonobuoys. The P-8 also has five internal and six external stations for armaments, shortening the sensor-to-shooter kill chain and making the Poseidon a one-stop depot for intercepting hostile objects.

Current Events:

The P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft will replace the P-3C Orion. The P-8A is based on the Boeing 737 and will serve in antisubmarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Over the next five years the USN will procure 56 aircraft for a total of $33 billion.

Both the Poseidon and the Orion were used in the still ongoing search for the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 aircraft which went missing in March 2014.


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