Naval Air: Maritime Patrol Aircraft Come Ashore


October 27,2008:  Recently, a U.S. Navy P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft crashed on landing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The crew of eleven escaped, but the aircraft caught fire and was destroyed. The commander of the P-3C squadron, who was piloting the aircraft, was relieved of command several days later. The squadron only had three aircraft, and these maritime recon aircraft have been quietly (away from the public eye) operating over land in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. About a third of the navy's 156 P-3Cs have been equipped for operations over land (mainly by adding cameras that can zoom well enough to get good images of what's down there.)

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some of the P-3 AIP (Anti Surface Warfare Improvement Program) reconnaissance aircraft proved useful to marine ground units, but only if the marines put a senior marine officer (usually a colonel) on the P-3s. This insured that the P-3 crew was constantly reminded of what the marines on the ground needed, and the P-3 was not "hijacked" by some other headquarters for a recon mission that was of no use to the marines.

The AIP version of the P-3 has synthetic-aperture radar and electro-optical cameras that provide real time video, day and night, of surface areas. While this capability is useful at sea, the marines have discovered that the P-3 AIP is an excellent recon aircraft to support their ground operations. The P-3s carry enough countermeasures to protect them from portable anti-aircraft missiles, and can stay in the air over a marine unit for ten hours or more at a time. The P-3 has a satellite link and GPS onboard. The land recon versions of the P-3 can carry and use Maverick guided missiles and Harpoon missiles (configured for hitting ground targets). The aircraft also has equipment to detect and identify enemy radars operating in the area. Naturally, such a capable recon aircraft was in great demand, which is why the marines learned that if they could get a colonel on board the P-3, they would basically "own" the P-3 for that flight.

Over the next few years, some P-3s were equipped with Littoral Surveillance Radar Systems (LSRS) were also shifted to use over land. These aircraft had  a wide-aperture active electronically scanned array (AESA) type radar that enables them to track vehicles on land, and ships at sea. Such high resolution radars are already installed in JSTARS aircraft, Global Hawk UAVs and many fighters. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. The AESA radar used on JSTARS aircraft, enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. A new AESA radar for JSTARS enables them to spot smaller, man sized, objects. AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there.


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