January 5, 2010: Three more American P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft have been sent to the Seychelles islands, to search for pirates. Beginning last Summer, the United States has had one P-3 and at least one Reaper UAVs operating from the Seychelles islands, to search for Somali pirates operating far from their bases. One of these Reapers has been seen carrying a large pod under one wing. This appears to be a reconnaissance camera pod, that can take digital photos of large areas of water, over a hundred kilometers from the aircraft. Ideally, you want a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to carry a surface search radar, but this pod does not appear to be a radar. Moreover, a surface search radar would require much more electricity than a camera pod.
Since late last year, Somali pirates have been operating as far east as the Seychelles, which are a group of 115 islands 1,500 kilometers from the east African coast. The islands have a total population of 85,000 and no military power to speak of. Except for a small coast guard, they are defenseless against pirates. So are many of the ships moving north and south off the East Coast of Africa. While ships making the Gulf of Aden run know they must take measures to deal with pirate attacks (posting lookouts 24/7, training the crew to use fire hoses and other measures to repel boarders, hanging barbed wire on the railings and over the side to deter boarders), this is not so common for ships operating a thousand kilometers or more off the east coast of Africa. Ships in this area were warned late last year that they were at risk. Now, the pirates are out in force, demonstrating that the risk is real.
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. There are also several non-U.S. P-3s operating from Djibouti, which is one of Somalia's western neighbors.
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 and Reaper. 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."
A fully equipped, for maritime patrol, Reaper costs over $20 million each. Such a reaper can spot ships below night and day, and has cameras that can zoom in on any ship or speedboat for a detailed video close up. A P-3 aircraft can only stay in the air for half as long as a Reaper, but carriers more sensors and weapons. A P-3 also requires a larger ground crew, and more maintenance after each flight.
Nevertheless, the demand for Reapers in Afghanistan, and the skill and experience of the P-3 crews, makes the P-3 the most effective, and available, maritime recon aircraft for the anti-piracy patrol.