It was during PNoy’s visit to Japan in the first week of June 2015 that plans for the acquisition of the P-3C started firming up up. Initially I thought that Japan would only give us simple military equipment like Trucks, Small Boats, etc., but it turns out they are more aggressive in helping us improve our armed forces than the United States. As of this writing, the acquisition of the P-3C is still being finalized, but it seems that the Department of National Defense (DND) is intent on getting this aircraft and that it will be a part of our aircraft inventory by the year’s end (hopefully). So let’s take a closer look at the P-3.
’The P-3C Orion’
The P-3 is a subsonic, straight wing, four Turboprop engined aircraft designed for both Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW, against ships) with a typical crew size of eleven. It was initially made by the American company Lockheed Martin and entered service with the United States Navy (USN) in 1962. Since then approximately 757 aircraft have been built, and the aircraft has entered service with the armed forces of 18 countries around the world. It is a COMBAT PROVEN design, having seen action during the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War and the various wars that the US had been involved in the Middle East during the last 2-3 decades. The P-3C is the latest and most common version, and its official name is the Orion.
Both the Philippine Navy (PhN) and Philippine Air Force (PhAF) operate Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), but for some reason the more visible MPA being used nowadays is the PhN’s Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander, and a comparison with its performance to the P-3C are as follows:
As we can see there is a HUGE difference in terms of performance between the two aircraft, with the P-3C having MORE than TWICE the Speed and Range of the BN-2T. This is in part because the P-3C is also a much bigger and more powerful aircraft. The P-3C has a stated mission radius of 2,493 km with a 3-hour loiter time, well beyond the 480 km distance of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) from Puerto Princesa in Palawan, enabling it to stay around that area much longer even without refueling. Furthermore, because of its relatively high cruising speed, it will be able reach that area from Palawan in under an hour, as opposed to almost two hours for the BN-2T to travel the same distance.
In most countries, the P-3C is used by the Navy, but the PhN has released a statement to the Press saying that it is in their opinion that the P-3C should be operated by the PhAF instead because they have better support capability to operate the aircraft. It doesn’t really matter to me which service ends up operating the P-3C, as long as they are able to support and operate it well.
The P-3C has served for so long and with so many countries, and it carries so many sensors and weapons that aircraft entering service with different countries tend to have slightly different Avionics and Weapons suite. Now since we are most likely getting the P-3Cs from the Japan Maritime Defense Force (JMSDF), then I will be referring to that particular version in terms of avionics and equipment in the paragraphs below.
’ASuW Sensors and Weapons’
The main sensor for ASuW that the P-3C uses is its AN/APS-115B Surface Search radar which has an estimated detection range of 140 km for a mid-sized ship with a Radar Cross-Section (RCS) of 30,000 m^2, which is pretty good. The radar is complemented by two Electro-Optical Sensors, the AN/AVX-1 Electro-Optical Sensor System (EOSS) for day and low-light conditions and the AN/AAS-36 Infra-Red Detecting Set (IRDS) for night time operations.
The P-3C can carry a lot of different types of ASuW weapons, but against enemy ships with air cover or long range Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), it will have to rely on long-range standoff weapons for it to be able to survive after making an attack. Its main weapon for that would be the AGM-64 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missile (AShM) which has a range of around 110 km. A longer ranged version of the Harpoon, the AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER has a range of more than twice of that at 240 km.
’ASW Sensors and Weapons’
The main sensor used by the P-3C for ASW are Sonobuoys which are expendable sonar systems that are ejected into the water and which the P-3C then gathers sonar data from to detect Submarines. Sonobuoys are slowed down during their descent by small Parachutes, and once they are in the water their main body floats up near the surface while their sensors are lowered deeper into the water. It takes Sonobuoys a couple of minutes to deploy and become active, and they have lifespans of around two hours after which they sink on their own to the bottom of the ocean floor. A total of 84 Sonobuoys are typically carried by the P-3C, 48 pre-loaded externally on the aircraft’s belly while another 36 reloads are carried inside the aircraft.
Complementing the Sonobuoys for ASW operations is the ASQ-81 Magnetic Anomaly Detector, which is the noticeable “Stinger” type protrusion coming out of the P-3C’s rear side. When deployed, the tip of the “Stinger” is lowered into the water via cable, where it trails behind the aircraft. These MAD have a range of only 330 m around the sensor, much shorter than the range of Sonobuoys which are measured in tens of kilometers. This is why Sonobuoys are used as the MAIN sensor for ASW, while the MAD is used only as a secondary sensor.
For weapons, the P-3C uses Lightweight Torpedoes (LWT) like the Mark 46 LWT which has a range of 12 km, speed of 45 knots and a warhead of 44 kg. What makes aircraft like the P-3C so dangerous to Submarines is its ability to drop torpedoes practically on top of it, giving the Sub little time to evade the torpedo.
’Electronic Surveillance Measures’
However, I think the most important but often underrated and often overlooked sensor of the P-3 would be its Electronic Surveillance Measure (ESM) equipment. In simplest terms these ESM equipment detects the Electro-Magnetic Signals emanating from Ships or Submarines like Radar, Radio Signals, etc. and then provides information on their Type, Bearing (i.e., direction) and Distance. What makes ESM very important is its ability to detect signals at long ranges, especially in the case of Radar, for example, wherein ESM equipment is able to pick up radar signals even before the radar can detect the P-3. On average, ESM equipment can detect Radar at about TWICE the detection range of the Radar.
A second important advantage of ESM is that it is PASSIVE, meaning the Ship or Sub being observed has no way of knowing that its signals have been intercepted and its location being given away. In the case of enemy fighter aircraft, for example, the P-3 can detect and identify its radar emissions with ESM long before the enemy aircraft can detect the P-3, so the P-3 can just elect to move AWAY from the danger. Against radar mounted on slower moving platforms like Ships or Submarines, the P-3 can “linger” around its perimeter, avoiding detection but getting a good idea of the general location of the enemy.
From there it then has a couple of options, like either launch its own missiles, call in other allied assets like faster attack aircraft, or even move in closer if needed to get better information of the target by using its other sensors like Radar or its passive EO systems. Of course, ESM is not perfect, generally the farther the signal, the less precise the Type, Bearing and Distance information is, but vice versa as the signal gets nearer the information becomes more accurate. The JMSDF P-3C uses the AN/ALQ-78 Pod as its main ESM system.
’High Operating Costs’
One concern about these aircraft are their high operating costs as they are large aircraft with four large engines. Take note that in terms of its ENGINES, WEIGHTS and PAYLOAD, the P-3C is VERY similar to the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, hence we can expect the P-3C to also have similar Cost Per Flight Hour (CPFH) as the C-130. The only CPFH information specific to the P-3 that I could find in the internet is for New Zealand’s P-3Ks, which puts it at around USD 8k (P 360k). The P-3Ks are improved versions of the P-3Cs with a different set of avionics suite.
Aside from the large engines and high aircraft weight, another reason for its high operating costs is due to the use of expendable Sonobuoys, which cost at least USD 100 each, and a P-3C can go thru its 84 Sonobuoys worth a total of at least USD 8,400 in a single mission lasting up to 16 hours. Helicopters have the advantage of using the more cost-effective Dipping Sonar (DS) because it is RE-USABLE, but DS work only up to slow speeds, something which fixed wing aircraft like the P-3C are unable to do (but Helicopters can).
Hence the P-3C is reduced to using a sensor that can work at high speeds, which is the MAD. But then the MAD has a very short range, hence the need to use the expendable Sonobuoys most of the time. However, there really is no going around this, if we want something that can search a LARGE area of the ocean at the quickest possible time, then we have to go with a large aircraft like the P-3C. Helicopters simply do not have the SPEED, RANGE and ENDURANCE of fixed wing aircraft.
The thing to remember though is that in order for us to maximize the high operating cost of the aircraft, then we will need to have ALL of its sensors and weapons with it as much as possible. This is significant because there are reports that say that most of its American equipment and weapons might not come with the aircraft since the transfer of these require approval by the US Congress.
Without Radar or EO sensors, the P-3 will have to move in closer to observe enemy assets, making it a lot more vulnerable to enemy anti-air defenses. And without ESM equipment to warn it of danger, it will be a lot more vulnerable to enemy fighter aircraft. Right now we are not 100% sure that the US Congress will approve the equipment transfers and even then we are also not sure if they will approve ALL of the transfers. It is possible they will only approve some, but not all. Third, we don’t know how long it will take them to give the approval, it could take months, or worst it could even take them years.
If we do get a stripped-down aircraft, the P-3C’s high performance will still be an asset for us, but then we won’t be able to maximize its high CPFH. I think a better option would be for us to simply replace the removed equipment and weapons with ones that are from friendly Western and Asian countries. I won’t mind if we get a different set of equipment as I had enumerated above, as long as we get a one-for-one replacement with other brands for them. This means spending additional money for the acquisition, but that way we can at least more or less preserve the natural capabilities of the P-3C and maximize its high CPFH.
If there is an aircraft out there that we really need in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), it is no other than the P-3C since our conflict with China is MARITIME in nature, meaning involving a lot of Ships and Submarines, and the P-3C can carry equipment and weapons that allow it to conduct BOTH ASW and ASuW operations at the SAME TIME. Its high CPFH might be an issue, but then there is no going around this as getting a smaller aircraft with less CPFH likely means less capability also.
A smaller twin-engined fixed wing aircraft won’t have the range or speed performance of a P-3, nor will its engines have enough power to support as many sensors. And it also won’t be able to carry as many sensors and weapons because it has less payload. I just hope though that we won’t get a “neutered” P-3C with very few or even no equipment and weapons, or else it will be nothing more than just a souped-up BN-2 Islander aircraft but still using the Mark 1 Eyeball sensor to detect the enemy, which would then be quite tragic …
^ Japan, Philippines OK talks on defense equipment transfer,
^ PH to get planes from Japan,
^ P-3C Orion Long Range ASW Aircraft,
^ Islander, The World’s Most Versatile Aircraft,
^ Acquisition, Operation of P-3s Under PAF Purview,
^ FMS P-3C Avionics Configurations,
^ Smarter (and Simpler) Radar in Harpoon,
^ A Perspective on EW Receiver Design,
^ Review of Maritime Patrol Requirements,