October 24, 2015: Strategy Page
On its Pacific coast Russia is deploying, for the first time, its new IL-38N maritime patrol aircraft. These aircraft will operate from two bases. Since 2014 new crews have been training off the north coast (the Arctic Ocean) an area in western Russia that has climate and sea conditions most similar to the Pacific coast. The new crews need a lot of time in the air to get the most from the new and quite powerful electronic sensors the aircraft has. The Russian Navy has been receiving the IL-38N since 2011 but only at the rate of one every few months.
This was all part of a program to take elderly IL-38s and upgrade them to the IL-38N standard. This was all the navy could afford as a new maritime patrol aircraft would be too expensive. The Russian Navy only had about 18 IL-38s operational to begin with and that’s all that will be upgraded. The upgrade program is nearly complete. Now there are additional upgrades available for the IL-38N, mostly to the sensors and other electronics.
The IL-38N is a four engine aircraft roughly equivalent to the American P-3s. However the IL-38s have not had their sensors and communications equipment updated since the late 1980s. In addition only 59 were built in the first time, between 1967 and 1972. In addition to the 18 Russian IL-38s this upgrade was also been installed on five Indian IL-38s back in 2003. That was more of a chore than expected and it took until 2010 to get the upgrade working reliably. Getting the upgrade for more Russian aircraft was mainly a matter of finishing all the debugging and then getting the money. The Il-38N upgrade was first proposed in the 1980s, but the end of the Cold War and a shortage of money in the 1990s delayed work for decades.
The latest upgrades enable the aircraft to detect ships within 320 kilometers. There is also a new thermal (heat) sensor, more powerful computers, and increased capability in all sensors. In 2014 Russia used the new sensors in the IL-38N to map magnetism and gravity in the Arctic Ocean. Such data, when used to update Russian maps of the underwater “climate” make sonar (underwater radar using sound) and MAD (detecting submerged subs based on how these metallic objects disturb the magnetism in the water) more accurate. The frigid waters off Russia’s north coast have different properties (as far as submarine detection sensors go) than warmer water in the temperate or tropical areas. The water off the Pacific coast is also cold and the weather, in general, is probably the worst on the planet. Only the North Atlantic comes close.
Il-38Ns can detect surface vessels and aircraft and submarines up to 150 kilometers away using radar and over 300 kilometers away if the other aircraft or ships are broadcasting (radio or radar). Sensors carried include a synthetic aperture/inverse synthetic aperture radar (for night and fog operations), high-resolution FLIR (forward-looking infrared), LLTV (low light television) camera, ESM (electronic support measures) system, and a MAD (magnetic anomaly detector). The aircraft can carry anti-ship missiles, in addition to torpedoes, bombs, depth charges, and electronic decoys.
The Il-38N is a 63 ton, four engine turboprop aircraft with a crew of ten, endurance of about ten hours, and it can carry nine tons of weapons. The 63 ton American P-3 has very similar characteristics. Russia built 176 Il-38s while the U.S. built over 600 P-3s. Most IL-38s were built in the early 1960s and have long since worn out and been scrapped or lost to accidents. Meanwhile the Indians are replacing their Il-38s with the new American P-8, a twin engine jet based on the American B-737 transport. The P-8s are replacing all the American P-3s as well. This was the type of aircraft the Russians could not afford and apparently still cannot afford.