Naval Air: January 23, 2005


The Il-38 May and the P-3 Orion have long been the main maritime patrol aircraft for the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Both were derivatives of airliners the Il-38 from the Il-20 Coot, the P-3 from the Lockheed Electra. Russia is looking to take advantage of the efforts coming from Indias decision to modernize its small force of Il-38s.

The modernized Il-38s will use the Novella system, which is also known as Sea Dragon. Indias decision to upgrade its Il-38s provided a lot of the funding for the development of this system, which involves all-digital equipment. Russia has a total of 35 Il-38s. What is not known is if the Russians will follow Indias lead by equipping their Il-38s with the Kh-35/AS-20 Kayak (also known as Harpoonski) and the R-73/AA-11 Archer making their Il-38s formidable threats to surface vessels and other maritime patrol aircraft. The upgrades will give the Il-38 fifteen more years of service (until 2020). India has 8 Il-38, Russia has 35. Russia and India also use the Tu-142 Bear F, a variant of a strategic bomber, the Tu-95 Bear A. Russia has 55 Tu-142s in service, India has 8. Indias Bears are being upgraded, reportedly with Israeli electronics.

Novella is an all-digital integrated electronic reconnaissance system. It has a synthetic aperture radar that can detect ships out to 150 kilometers away, forward-looking infra-red and a low-light TV camera for location and identification of targets at night without using radar (which can be detected). The Novella upgrade also includes an electronic support measures suite to detect radars (which can identify a ship or aircraft), and a new magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), which will help it locate a submarine close to the surface. Novella also uses the Russian GLONASS system, which is comparable to the American GPS.

The Il-38s counterpart in the United States Navy is the P-3 Orion. The P-3C is also in service with Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Iran, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands (the Dutch aircraft are being transferred to Germany), Pakistan, Portugal, and Thailand. These aircraft have received upgrades, and the American P-3s have long had the ability to carry anti-ship missiles, usually the AGM-84 Harpoon, which has a range of up to 315 kilometers. The P-3 also has had the AIM-9 Sidewinder, which it would use against opposing maritime patrol aircraft. Over 650 were built, with 487 still in service.

The P-3 clearly outperforms the Il-38 in terms of speed (759 km per hour compared to 722 for the Il-38) and range (8945 km to 7200, about 25 percent more). It also was much more versatile, being able to engage surface vessels even as the Il-38 was entering service in the 1970s. The Tu-142, based on the Tu-95 bomber, was faster and had longer range (15,000 kilometers over 66 percent more than the P-3), but even then, it was never capable of engaging surface targets (the Russians reserved that mission for the Tu-22M Backfire and the Tu-16 Badger). The P-3 was clearly the best, and was widely exported. Its long service (since 1962) leaves huge shoes for Boeings MMA (like the P-3 and Il-38, a modified airliner) to fill. 

Speed (km/h) 759 722 920
Range (km) 8945 7200 15000
Length (feet) 98.50 129.83 161.16
Wingspan (feet) 81.18 122.67 164.16
Number in service 487 43 63

Harold C. Hutchison (


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