Airborne undercurrent at naval symposium


One may be forgiven for thinking that the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Cape Town was all about surface ships and other naval matters.

This is largely true, with the majority of stands set up by the sponsors of the Symposium touting their wares for Project Biro, the acquisition by the SA Navy of new patrol vessels. All the local and many international shipbuilding yards were present, as were a limited number of other vendors of naval equipment and sensors.

However, at least two stands displaying naval hardware had another agenda up their sleeves. While neither was overt in their intention, they certainly understood the commercial importance of the South African Air Force’s requirement for new maritime surveillance aircraft under Project Saucepan.

The Air Force has been without a purpose-built maritime patrol aircraft since the last of the elderly Avro Shackleton aircraft were retired in 1984. Since then, upgraded and re-engined World War Two vintage C-47TP Dakotas, operated by 35 Squadron in Cape Town, have been performing the maritime surveillance task with rudimentary radios and weather radar.

Although no formal specification or requirement has been issued, the Air Force’s budget is expected to increase in 2013/14 to take Project Saucepan costs into account. As a result, a number of international maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft suppliers are keeping a keen eye on the South African requirement.

Swedish aerospace and defence company Saab is keen to provide a version of their 35-seat Saab 340 twin-engine turboprop passenger aircraft. As the aircraft is no longer in production, but with over 400 still in airline service, the Saab 340 MSA (Maritime Security Aircraft) is based on substantially reworked second-hand aircraft. Completely stripped and overhauled, the aircraft emerge from the Saab factory as new aircraft, complete with Telephonics maritime surveillance radar, retractable Star Safire III Electro Optical Sensor turret, SatCom, Mission Management System and ship Automatic Identification System (AIS). Additional sensors and large observer windows are optional extras.

Saab advertises the 340 MSA as a complete airborne operational system based on a proven airframe with airline standard lavatory, galley and crew rest area. The maximum endurance of seven hours is almost double that of the Dakota. The 340 MSA is already in service with the Japan Coast Guard and Saab say their maritime surveillance system is one of the cheapest on the market. A MSA variant of the larger Saab 2000 is also available.

Raytheon of the USA are keen to sell the Beech King Air 350ER, a maritime patrol variant of the extremely popular 11-passenger twin-turboprop business aircraft. However, taking an almost opposite marketing view, the company emphasised that they wanted to work with their potential customers first, finding out what the requirement was and then provide the solution.

Although platform independent, Raytheon is keen to market their sensors with the Hawker Beechcraft aircraft and the King Air 350ER is widely used for land surveillance and special mission tasks. There are a number of King Airs operating in the maritime surveillance role, with the most recent being those operated by the US Customs and Border Patrol.

Smaller, but more expensive than the Saab product, a basic system includes maritime search radar, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors, AIS and onboard mission workstationswith options for a data link and drop hole. With an endurance of up to nine hours, the Beech King Air 350ER is often seen as the market leader.

While essentially an Air Force acquisition program, the navy has understandably provided strong support for Project Saucepan and both companies have taken the opportunity presented by IONS to meet with senior navy and Air Force members.

With a number of other maritime surveillance aircraft providers waiting in the wings, the next few years will be exciting times for the acquisition team.