Early warning aircraft have been in service with all leading air forces around the world. The AWACS The Airborne Warning and Control System, especially the Boeing E-3 Sentry were used very successfully during the cold war era. More specifically, the requirements existed for hunting submarines, which pose an immense threat to all shipping during times of conflict, it is the invisible enemy in the sea. The cat and mouse game of intelligence and counter intelligence, occupied centre stage during that era. But no one can deny the role of such aircraft during peace times. Weather it is border patrols, search and rescue or just surveillance, an aircraft with these capabilities is a valuable asset. The recent attack on PNS Mehran, where these P3-Orions were stationed, has attracted much interest in the public, and not many people with the appropriate expertise have come forward to explain what the real significance of these aircraft is to maintaining a real deterrence.
Let me begin by explaining how this aircraft hunts submarines. Earth is a very large magnet, with a defined magnetic field. Some readers will remember the experiment in school, where fine iron particles placed on a piece of paper were made to align themselves, when a magnet was placed under the paper. These lines are termed the flux lines, and responsible for the magnetic compass always pointing towards North. A submarine is made of conventional ferrous metals, therefore, its presence in the water disturbs earth’s magnetic field. The detection of this disturbance is done through a Magnetic Anomaly Detector or MAD for short. Other detection systems like radar and sonobuoy receivers are also used to detect underwater or targets on the surface.
Sonobouys, with a flotation device, listen to the sounds produced by the propeller or the engine of a submarine; these sounds are then transmitted to the aircraft circling above. These bouys are launched from sophisticated launch tubes, and can be left in the water as semi-permanent information transmitters for long periods of time. Sonobuoy Reference System (SRS) which makes use of ten aerials, is able to register the exact direction from where a sonobuoy signal is received. The Delayed Time Compression” (Deltic) system accompanied with fast computers, enable processing of sounds, improving the detection of underwater targets.
The digital computer, on the P3-Orion has a memory, loaded with a large number of sound profiles of submarines and radar- and radio signals. So when a sound is picked up by the aircraft, it is compared with the sound signature database, enabling the operators to determine the exact make and model of the submarine. A digital data link system allows tactical data to be exchanged with ground stations, ships or other aircraft. All data gathered by the Orion during a mission can be handed over to the computer of another Orion or other maritime patrol aircraft arriving at the base station..
These technologies make the P3-Orion a truly versatile aircraft, denying the enemy the freedom of the seas. When “>India received a couple of Tupolev Bears from the Soviet Union, it became apparent, that the balance of power in this key area had tilted in India’s favour.
There are only a few nations that produce AWACS aircraft, between them there are more than a dozen different such aircraft, some in active operational service today, Lokheed P3 Orion, Boeing 767 NC-135, Nimrod, Boeing E3 Sentry, Tupolev TU 126 (Moss), TU-95 (Bear), Antanov AN 71 (Madcap) to name a few. Most of these aircraft have different capabilities. One feature that stands out in favour of the P3 Orion, is its endurance, it can remain airborne for up to 20 hours.
The delivery of three P-3C Orion’s was approved in 1988 by the US government. But due to the arms embargo the aircraft remained in storage until the end of 1996. The three aircraft finally came to the Mehran Airbase and started service with the 28th Squadron. With the arrival of the Orion’s the balance of power was restored. Though some would argue that the Tupolev’s have a better capability and range. But the inclusion of the Orion’s in the Air Arm of Pakistan Navy, at the time was considered a huge improvement, in this area of Military/Naval operations, and gave our forces an ability to see the invisible enemy neutralising any advantage they may have possessed in the high seas.
During 2000 the aircraft were modified by the Pakistan Navy and Air force engineers and were fitted with chaff/flare dispensers and additional search and rescue capabilities. One of the three P-3C Orion’s was lost in a crash on 29 October 1999. The US government approved the delivery of eight additional P-3C Orion’s in 2005. These aircraft, most likely P-3C-I Orion’s, were sold at a price of 970 million USD including support and a ninth airframe for spares. These 8 PC-3’s are somewhat less capable than the original 3 that were acquired in 1996. The main difference is in the processing power. So all together Pakistan Navy should have 2 operational P3-CII, and 8 Ps-CI Orion’s in service. Assuming, two aircraft were lost in the terrorist attack, Pakistan Navy still has at its disposal Eight Aircraft. This is a substantial fleet, and can maintain more than adequate coverage and deny a potential aggressor the freedom of inflicting a heavy blow to our naval capability.
The Orion is truly a remarkable aircraft, it can detect surface activity some 300-500 nautical miles away. It can detect submarines, on the move or when they are lying on the sea bed silently. With the Orion in the sky it is impossible for a submarine to hide. The attack on PNS Mehran, is a huge setback, and I am sure the powers that be, will now be looking to disperse these aircraft, so that they minimise the risk of further attacks on this capability. With an enemy within, the nation is in a war like situation, and it becomes incumbent upon all of us to note suspicious activity, guard and protect or personal interests and that of our homeland. We are very quick to blame the government and the forces for neglect, but the real question is, don’t we the civilian citizens of Pakistan have a role to play? Should we not be vigilant? Should we sleep through the crisis? Any self-respecting Pakistani can not let the status quo prevail. If we are to let our next generation thrive in our loved homeland, we have to put a stop to this extremism, we have to become the eyes and the ears for the nation.