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MH-370 and the evolving Indian SAR paradigm

Saurav Jha |

Updated:April 7, 2015, 4:42 PM IST
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MH-370 and the evolving Indian SAR paradigm

The case of missing flight MH-370 has turned out to be one of the greatest mysteries of the new millennium and now even as the official Australian underwater search draws to a close it is worthwhile to remember that several militaries in the Indo-Pacific mounted very large scale search and rescue (SAR) operations for MH-370 last year.

Garnering a lot of attention during the course of that multilateral SAR effort was the widespread use of maritime surveillance planes deployed on long duration patrols in a bid to locate suspected wreckage over vast stretches of open sea. Indeed, this tragic occurrence seemed to have given navies in the region an opportunity to test readiness levels and operational concepts revolving around contemporary maritime aviation platforms.

The Indian Navy (IN) was naturally a part of the initial international hunt for MH-370 showcasing some of its recent acquisitions such as the Boeing P-8I Neptune Maritime Reconnaissance and Anti-Submarine Warfare (MRASW) aircraft in a SAR role. Moreover, this incident may have also given the IN a view into the nature of its future acquisitions.

Just to recollect, MH370 disappeared from civilian radar some 40 minutes after take-off from Kuala Lampur on March 8, 2014 putatively en route to Beijing and is then believed to have been spotted again due west of Malaysia in the straits of Malacca some 45 minutes later after which it seems to have gone completely off radar.

The international search took place along a 'northern corridor' stretching in an arc from the point of last contact through Northern Thailand, Laos, China into Kazakhstan and a 'southern corridor' leading from Indonesia towards the Southern Indian Ocean Region (IOR), based on Inmarsat satellite data and range calculations taking into the account minimum and maximum speeds that the plane might have flown in. Each of those corridors had been sub-divided into seven quadrants each to allow for a more systematic search. Each quadrant was 720 kilometres long and 720 kilometres wide.

The southern corridor(SC), which was obviously the one in the maritime sphere emerged as the primary zone of focus, with China, Japan and even South Korea joining in the search by deploying maritime surveillance aircraft. Of course given that most of the passengers on board MH-370 were Chinese, Beijing naturally staked a claim to participating in the search in this zone though it did also give it an opportunity to gain some operational experience in the Southern IOR.

A March 16, 2014 Australian satellite image apparently showed two indistinct floating objects in the Southern IOR, the larger being estimated at 24 metres across thereby forming the basis for narrowing down the 'search box' in the SC.

Incidentally both Australia and Malaysia while releasing this information on March 20, 2014 described these sightings at the time as 'credible' leads. The location of this sighting was around 2000 km southwest of Perth, lying on top of a volcanic ridge in waters estimated to be 2,500 to 4,000 metres deep.

A couple of days later China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense stated that a Chinese satellite had taken an image of an object 22 metres by 13 metres on March 18, 2014. This image pointed to a location 120 km south of where the Australian satellite had viewed two objects a couple of days earlier.

Since the larger object seen in the Australian image was about as long as the one the Chinese satellite detected, it only served to reinforce the attention being given to that remote area in the Southern IOR not very far from Antarctica and one that container ships usually avoid.

As such this search area began to buzz with assets from navies all across the Indo-Pacific looking for the 'larger object' as well as possible floating pallets released from the cargo hold of the missing airliner even though a Norwegian commercial vessel that happened to be in the vicinity actually looked around the location of the Australian sighting, only to find nothing.

At one point over a score naval ships, more than two dozen fixed wing aircraft and several helicopters concentrated their search efforts in the narrowed down search area. Malaysia which had half a dozen ships in the SC last year received support from two Indonesian Air force C-130 Hercules. Australia contributed P-3C Orions in addition to one C-130 operating out Pearce Air Force base in Bullsbrook, 35km north of Perth which served as a hub for the SAR effort in the new search box.

Pearce also supported operations of one US Navy P-8A Poseidon and one P-3C Orion. Other countries that hosted aircraft at Pearce included New Zealand (one P-3), South Korea (one P-3 and one C-130), Japan (two P-3s, two C-130s and one Gulfstream business jet) and even the United Arab Emirates (one Boeing C-17 and one Bombardier Dash 8). Of particular interest to India was the fact that three Chinese aircraft, two Ilyushin IL-76s and one Shaanxi Y-8Q MRASW operated out of Pearce.

The choice of sending two IL-76s seems a little strange however, since these are not particularly suited for this kind of SAR operation, being essentially transports, although one of may have been sent just to support the Y-8Q.

Meanwhile apart from the USN, the IN became the only other navy to deploy P-8s in search of MH 370. That is not surprising since the IN is after all the only other customer for Boeing's P-8 at the moment.

Early on during the disappearance, when there were suspicions of MH-370 having been lost in the Andaman Sea, the IN deployed two Boeing P-8I Neptunes and two Dornier Do-228 aircraft from the Eastern Naval Command's INS Rajali naval air station(NAS), alongside an Indian Air force(IAF) C-130J Hercules probably tasked with dropping marker buoys to determine current and drift conditions.

Subsequently responding to a specific Malaysian request the IN deployed P-8Is alongside an IAF C-130J to the new search box 5,000 km south of Jakarta in the IOR. Overall India h deployed some six warships and five maritime surveillance aircraft last year as part of it contributions towards the effort to locate MH-370.

These long distance SAR patrols for MH-370, gave the IN an opportunity to fine tune the technology on board it's P-8I acquisition. The P-8I's AN/APY-10 radar, a repackaged APS-137 mechanically steered radar has been optimized for littoral surveillance which allows it to look for objects (such as largish debris) amidst sea clutter.

This radar according to the USN has at least six modes: surface search (including simultaneous tracking and scanning), periscope detections, color weather, navigation, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and inverse SAR (ISAR). The ISAR and scan modes are perhaps the most relevant to locate floating debris. Once suspected debris is located a MX-series EO/IR camera made by L-3 Communications Holdings with 2 megapixel optical zoom provides the visual picture.

The P-8I is also capable of deploying sonobuoys, carried in an internal bay that can trace/receive the acoustic signature of something like a 777's flight data recorder. It is noteworthy that the P-8I can deploy 129 sonobuoys per sortie versus the P-3C's 84.

Indeed Boeing in particular was probably keen that the P-8s performance is showcased vis a vis the pre-eminent legacy MRASW aircraft in the world, Lockheed Martin's P-3C Orion which as we saw was also heavily deployed for the MH-370 SAR effort.

The Boeing 737-based P-8Is equipped with new generation sensors do represent a new Concept of Operations (CONOP) related to MRASW as opposed to legacy propeller aircraft used in that role however. A P-8I flying out of Pearce would take much less time to get to the search box than the P-3C which took about 4hrs to reach the site related to the satellite images mentioned above, with about 2hrs left over for search time.

The P-8I which although has less range capability than the P-3C Orion may actually still be able to spend up to 3-4 hours over the same area on account of its dash speed and thereby lower time of transit. Besides, the P-8I is also air refuelling capable.

The P-3C Orion though also equipped with radar and electro-optical payloads was actually designed to fly low and slow over search areas in an MRASW role trying to locate Soviet nuclear submarines during the cold war.

The P-8I instead relies on its new sensor package for broad area maritime surveillance by scanning large swathes of Ocean quicker, perched at a higher altitude with much less vulnerability to sea surface weather or submarine launched anti-aircraft missiles that are beginning to emerge on the world market. The IN of course is in a unique position to evaluate the merits of these new CONOPS since it has long flown 'low and slow' in the Ilyushin IL-38s, a Cold War era contemporary of the P-3.

Now while the P-8I is certainly well suited to the search part of the mission, the 'rescue' part can actually be accomplished with a different class of aircraft. It is in this context that the proposed purchase of the Japanese US-2 Amphibious SAR aircraft by the IN assumes significance.

Produced by Shinmaywa Industries, the US-2 can fly 4700 km on internal fuel with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) payloads at a top speed of about 580 km/hr (cruise speed is 100km/hr lower)and perform short take-off and landing in water with waves up to three meters high.

The IN is in discussions to procure 15 units of this amphibian at a cost of 1.65 billion dollars to be based out of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which would allow it to cover wide swathes of the IOR. Though a military aircraft, the proposed US-2I being offered to India is a stripped down 'civilian' version which will come without an identification friend or foe (IFF) system. The real delay in sewing up this deal is on account of negotiations pertaining to the co-production of the aircraft in India.

Nevertheless if the US-2 does find its way into the IN's inventory alongside the P-8I and other maritime surveillance aircraft, it would only make the IN's case stronger to act as a lead agency for a future multilateral regional framework that is at constant readiness to undertake joint HADR operations across the IOR.

For updates follow Saurav Jha on twitter @SJha1618. Send your feedback to geekatlarge1618@gmail.com

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