September 24, 2008:Spain is
sending a P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Djibouti, where it will
patrol the waters off the northern coast of Somalia. Pirates here have become
an increasing problem there. The Gulf of Aden 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. So far this year, 3-4 of those ships
have been seized by pirates each month. That's one ship out of every 400-500.
But with the pirates getting more and more ransom money for each ship, the
number of pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden is increasing. It's
believed that at least three fishing trawlers (able to stay out for weeks at a
time, and carry speed boats for attacks) are acting as mother ships for the
pirates. 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 Spanish P-3 will seek out the mother ships, and alert
warships to the location where the pirates are operating.
The American 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 is sending 90 personnel (air and ground crew) to Djibouti. 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 andhas
a maximum endurance of 18 hours.