April 21, 2009:
Japan is sending two P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Djibouti where they will patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia. Last year, Spain sent a P-3, to search for the pirates that have become an increasing problem there.
The site of most attacks has been the Gulf of Aden, which is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world (with nearly ten percent of all traffic). Each month, 1500-1600 ships pass the northern coast of Somalia. Last year about one ship out of every 400-500 was captured by pirates. With the pirates getting more and more ransom money for each ship, the number of pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden is growing. An increasing number of mother ships, usually captured fishing trawlers (able to stay out for weeks at a time, and carry speed boats for attacks) are traveling farther from the coast in the search of victims. The P-3s can search large areas of the high seas in search of these mother ships, which warships are now hunting down.
Most merchant ships are wary of pirate operations, and put on extra lookouts, and often transit the 1,500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden at high speed (even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel). The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. For the pirates, business is booming, and ransoms are going up. Pirates are now demanding $2-3 million per ship, and are liable to get it for the much larger tankers and bulk carriers they are now seizing. The P-3s seek out the mother ships, and alert warships to the location where the pirates are operating.
But there are some problems. The American built P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft is getting old. The average age of the U.S. P-3Cs is 28 years. The P-3 entered service in 1962. The current version has a cruise speed of 610 kilometers per hour, endurance of up to 13 hours and a crew of eleven. The 116 foot long, propeller driven aircraft has a wingspan of nearly 100 feet. The P-3C can carry about ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, or missiles like Harpoon and Maverick).
The 63 ton P-3 is based on the 1950s era Lockheed Electra airliner. The last P-3 was built in 1990. A more likely replacement for these elderly search planes, are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), like Global Hawk or smaller aircraft like Predator. These UAVs typically stay in the air for 24 hours, or more, at a time. What maritime reconnaissance aircraft need, more than anything else, is endurance or, as the professionals like to put it, "persistence."
Spain sent 90 personnel (air and ground crew) to Djibouti, while the Japanese are sending 150. There is already a French ATL2 maritime patrol aircraft stationed there. This is a twin engine, 46 ton aircraft that entered service in 1989. It can carry nine tons of weapons, a crew of eight and has a maximum endurance of 18 hours.