P-3C vs. P-8I: India, Pakistan and the Naval Balance

21 Apr, 2013    ·   3889

Vijay Sakhuja compares the relative strategic value of the recent acquisitions for the countries’ navies

Naval aviation is an important part of the naval strategy of India and Pakistan. The Pakistan navy took the lead in the sub-continent in terms of introducing the Atlantique long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Sea King helicopters fitted with anti-ship missiles. It also acquired the US supplied P3C Orion with Harpoon missiles.

Although the Indian naval leadership had acknowledged the role of and the need for long-range maritime patrol (LRMP) aircraft as force multipliers, these platforms were late entrants in the Indian naval force structure. The current Indian LRMP inventory comprises of the Russian origin Tupolev-142 and Ilyushin-38, which have been upgraded; and a few Dornier aircraft. There have been attempts to fit missiles on some of these platforms with mixed results.

In 2009, India signed a contract worth US$ 3.9 billion with Boeing to supply 8 P-8 Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA). The first P-8I (I for the Indian variant) was handed over to the Indian navy in December 2012 and is currently undergoing trials and crew training. The balance seven aircraft will be delivered in 2013 (two) and 2015 (seven). India is the first international customer for the P-8, and the acquisition of the platform is a good example of the growing Indo-US naval cooperation.

The on-board equipment of the P-8I is similar to that of the P-8A of the US navy, but a number of equipment and sub-assemblies developed by Indian Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU) and private companies have been fitted. The P-8I has a range of over 1200 nautical miles, is capable of in-flight refuelling, and can remain on task at a station for 4 hours. Its weapon suite includes the Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile, Mk-54 torpedoes, and depth charges.

The Harpoon missile is not new to the Indian sub-continent and therefore merits attention. In 2005, the US transferred nine P3C Orion aircraft and 60 Harpoon (40 air-launched and 20 ship launched) missiles to Pakistan. The total package - including a ‘close-in-weapon system’ was worth US$ 970 million. There were concerns among Indian naval planners, as the US had defended the sale of the hardware citing Pakistan’s legitimate self-defence capability.

In May 2011, two Pakistan navy P3C Orion aircraft were destroyed in a terrorist attack on PNS Mehran naval airbase in Karachi. During the 21st meeting of the US-Pakistan Defence Consultative Group (DCG) in December 2012, Pakistan had requested the US for replacements of the P3C Orion aircraft to make up for the losses and it was noted, “The provision of three or four more such aircraft would also help increase the counterterrorism capacity of Pakistani navy.”

The P-8I aircraft is designed for a number of roles and missions including surveillance, reconnaissance, detection, and prosecution of surface and subsurface targets at sea, imaging targets in the littorals, and search and rescue. The Arabian Sea is likely to be high on Indian navy’s deployment priorities where it must contend with the Pakistan navy.

The Pakistan navy has acquired Augusta 90 B submarines fitted with AIP system and there are plans to equip these platforms with Harpoon Block II missiles. Interestingly, the Pakistan naval leadership has noted that these submarines can be modified to deliver nuclear weapons. There have been speculations that Israel may have developed technological capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to be fitted on a Harpoon missile. Apparently, the US navy had spotted missiles being tested by an Israeli submarine in the Indian Ocean. It is quite unlikely that Pakistan has the technological knowhow to develop a miniaturised nuclear warhead of such sophistication unless it can obtain assistance from China, which has supported its nuclear weapons programme.

At another level, it is interesting that the Indian navy did not explore the possibility of equipping the P-8I with the Brahmos missile. There could have been at least two reasons: first, the Brahmos is a joint project of the Indian and Russian companies called Brahmos Aerospace, and there may be contractual limitations precluding its fitment on US origin platforms. Second, India has been attempting to diversify its military acquisitions to avoid overdependence on a single source; and in that context, the US naval hardware is a good alternative.

Finally, the P-8I is a significant addition to the Indian navy's armoury. It is a force multiplier and can significantly augment the maritime air surveillance, reconnaissance, and combat capabilities of the Indian navy. It would have to be cleverly deployed keeping in mind that the Pakistan navy is also equipped with Harpoon missiles and has a good knowledge of the missile’s technical parameters and exploitation doctrine. However, the P-8I is a technologically advanced platform as compared to the P3C Orion, and can offer technological edge over the Pakistan navy.