Two Russian Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft staged a publicity exercise last week, when they flew, at low altitude (500 feet), over a U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast of South Korea. Later, two Russian Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft flew over another U.S. warship (the USS Blue Ridge, a command and control ship) at 2,000 feet.
Russian maritime patrol aircraft have largely been grounded since the early 1990s, but in the last five years, more money was allocated to get more of these aircraft operational and in the air. The Russian patrol aircraft still fly far less than their American counterparts, so high visibility stunts like this are seen as necessary to make the most of the money invested in getting their naval air force back in action. The 176 Il-38 built are similar to the 757 U.S. P-3 Orions. There are still 161 American P-3s in service, and it is being replaced by the P-8. There are nearly a hundred P-3s in service by other nations.
Russia has about 30 Il-38s in service. There are five Il-38s in use by India. Like the P-3, the Il-38 is a variant of a civil airliner (in this case, the Ilyushin Il-20). The Il-38 showed up in the late 1960s, while the American maritime patrol aircraft was introduced early in the decade. Unlike the P-3, the Il-38 does not carry under wing hard points for anti-ship missiles. In part, this is due to the fact that the Soviets (and later the Russians) had plenty of other aircraft for the long-range maritime strike role (the Tu-16 Badger, the Tu-22 Blinder, and the Tu-22M Backfire). The Il-38 and Tu-142 Bear-F were also intended to operate in a more defensive role (destruction of NATO submarines trying to penetrate into the Barents Sea). The Tu-142 Bear-F, is a variant of a strategic bomber, the Tu-95 Bear. This results in about 50 percent more range than the Il-38 (12,550 kilometers versus 7,200 kilometers for the Il-38). This aircraft can fly from Bombay to Johannesburg without refueling.
Over the last six years, Russia has developed an upgrade program for Il-38s. Refurbished Il-38s have sensors that enable them to detect surface vessels, aircraft and submarines up to 150 kilometers away. Mines can be detected a few kilometers away, depending on their type. The sensors include a synthetic aperture/inverse synthetic aperture radar (for night and fog operations), high-resolution FLIR (forward-looking infrared), LLTV (low light television) camera, new ESM (electronic support measures) system and a new MAD (magnetic anomaly detector). The aircraft can now carry antiship missiles, in addition to torpedoes, bombs, depth charges and electronic decoys. The refurb is expected to keep the aircraft viable until about 2020. India is upgrading its Il-38s, but only a few Russian aircraft are getting the same treatment. P-3s have always had much more modern and powerful equipment than the Il-38.