Scans Terrain From Kosovo to the Hindu Kush
Venerable P-3 Aircraft Increase Situational
Awareness on the Battlefield
By DAVID READE
The P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) Hunting
terrorists in the peaks of the Hindu Kush? Spotting for special operations
troops in Iraq? Not the stereotypical MPA missions.
Not only has the Navy's front-line MPA been venturing
far inland; it has been an indispensable surveillance platform in the
global war on terrorism, a sensor and weapon platform that has impressed
operational commanders with its high degree of utility and versatility.
The Aircraft Improvement Program (AIP, formerly
Antisurface Improvement Program) version of the P-3C--which entered operational
service in 1998 and has since been upgraded--is equipped with a mix of
high-resolution infrared imaging systems, long-range electro-optical video
imaging systems, and both synthetic- and inverse synthetic-aperture radars.
The AIP P-3C created a new paradigm in 1999 during Operation Allied Force
in Kosovo and Serbia, where P-3Cs on station in the Adriatic Sea cast
the glance of their long-range electro-optical sensors far inland and
launched AGM-84E SLAMs (Standoff Land-Attack Missiles) against targets
even farther afield.
Two years later, in the wake of 9/11, the AIP P-3C
has emerged as a platform of choice for joint commanders to carry out
multimission intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) flights
throughout the Persian Gulf area of operations. The wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq since 9/11 have sealed the antisubmarine warfare aircraft's reputation
as a valuable warfighting platform in unforeseen new ways.
Within days of the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of Operation Enduring
Freedom (OEF), U.S. Navy P-3s already deployed in the Gulf region began
surveillance missions to provide operational commanders a clearer picture
of enemy positions within Afghanistan. This support was key to the success
of the first air strikes and cruise-missile attacks launched by the United
States and its coalition allies on 7 October 2001. Navy P-3Cs assigned
to Patrol Squadron Nine (VP-9) also participated in the initial night
of attacks, firing a number of SLAMs against Taliban and al Qaeda targets
inside Afghanistan. A number of buildings and an SA-13 surface-to-air
missile control center were hit by the SLAMs.
The Orions subsequently flew post-strike battle-damage-assessment
missions, giving operational commanders the imagery needed to plan new
strikes and/or re-strikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda positions.
Once total air supremacy over Afghanistan had been established, on or
about 17 October 2001, the P-3Cs began overland surveillance flights to
give ground commanders a bird's eye view--day and night--of the terrain
where special operations forces were operating to dislodge Taliban and
al Qaeda fighters from their mountainous hideouts.
During one of the more intensive actions, the battle
for Tora Bora (December 2001), Orions provided real-time reconnaissance
of cave complexes where enemy forces were hiding. The real-time imagery
was transmitted to the operational commanders coordinating U.S. Air Force
B-52 and fighter strikes on the caves along the rugged mountain sides.
Simultaneously, P-3s also flew target-recognition
missions in other regions of Afghanistan in an effort to locate senior
al Qaeda members seeking to escape over the border into Pakistan.
Navy P-3s played a pivotal role in Operation Anaconda
(March 2002), the largest in-country land battle to that date. Flying
over the sharp ridges of the Shah-e-kot Valley in eastern Afghanistan,
the P-3s carried U.S. Navy SEALs, who directed special operations forces
(SOFs) on the ground during the ambushes and clashes with enemy fighters
in the mountains. The P-3 crews used the aircraft's infrared sensors to
pinpoint enemy al Qaeda troops in their heated cave hideouts and relayed
information on the enemy positions to SOFs on the ground and strike aircraft
overhead. The attacking aircraft would in turn drop-skip bombs off the
mountain sides to penetrate the cave entrances. Some of the Orions carried
their own SLAM and Maverick Missiles to provide additional firepower.
The mountain-warfare operations required extra vigilance
on the part of the P-3 crews, who had to avoid collisions with the high
terrain while at the same time maintaining the prescribed safe standoff
distances from enemy air defenses.
P-3Cs also provided over-the-hill reconnaissance
for SOF troops, a mission that required looking to see what was waiting
on the other side of ridges as the SOFs were scaling the steep mountain
Although the RQ-1 and MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles received
considerable media attention as the principal surveillance aircraft over
Afghanistan, their live video feeds--likened to "looking through
a soda straw," in the words of one analyst--were transmitted to headquarters
hundreds of miles from the scene of battle but were not available to troops
at the scene. In contrast, video from the Orions was downlinked directly
to ground forces in real time, enabling troops to react more rapidly to
a changing tactical situation.
Although the intensity of combat operations inside
Afghanistan has declined significantly, P-3Cs are continuing ISR missions
over the countryside in support of U.S. and British forces. The latest
missions included Operation Snipe, in which British commandos worked in
close coordination with Pakistani troops along the Pakistani border to
eliminate al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives and to locate their secret sanctuaries.
P-3Cs also provided ISR support for Operation Mongoose,
in which the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division searched and cleared caves
in the Adi Ghar mountains while fending off enemy attacks. Similar support
was provided in a sweep of the Sami Ghar mountains, where large caches
of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank mines, and mortars were found.
During Operation Desert Lion, P-3s supported air
assaults by the 505th Army Parachute Regiment in the mountains of northeastern
Afghanistan, where a number of enemy guerrillas were killed and large
caches of weapons were found.
On another mission, during Operation Eagle Fury
in Bamiyan Province in the central mountains, 15 Taliban fighters were
captured by U.S. forces.
P-3Cs supported more than 300 U.S. SOFs in the fighting
in and around Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan, the largest combat
action in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda last year. In Spin Boldak,
U.S. forces located a large contingent of rebel fighters and, in a major
cave complex, found supplies including ammunition, fuel, food, water,
and blankets as well as some mules.
Another new mission that earned the Navy P-3 units
additional acclaim from the operational commanders in Afghanistan was
force protection. When Marine Expeditionary Units arrived in-country in
late 2001 and set up their forward operating bases--Camp Rhino near Kandahar,
for example,--the Orions provided real-time overhead imagery of terrain
beyond the camp perimeter that allowed the Marines to see well beyond
their positions and to receive early warning of attacks by the Taliban
A more traditional MPA role--maritime surveillance--was
neither forgotten nor neglected. Orions continued to protect the Navy's
forward-deployed carrier strike groups from the potential threats posed
by submarines and fast-attack suicide boats. The MPA also conducted Maritime
Interdiction Operations (MIOs) in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to
detect, investigate, and target--for interdiction by surface combatants--suspicious
looking non-military vessels. On one occasion, several small boats located
by MPA were stopped and several fugitive senior al Qaeda members were
Operation Iraqi Freedom
In the months and weeks leading up to Operation
Iraqi Freedom, Navy and coalition MPA stepped up pressure on Iraqi's maritime
commerce in the northern Persian Gulf. Navy P-3s doubled their MIO missions
to stem the flow of illegal cargoes of contraband oil and dates--pound
for pound worth more than oil--that have been used to fund terrorist organizations.
The P-3s located and tracked hundreds of vessels
suspected of smuggling and/or of laying sea mines. They also provided
real-time imagery of the area in and along the coast of Iraq and up the
country's inland waterways toward the port of Umm Qasr, gathering intelligence
on Iraqi troop positions, military installations, and Silkworm coastal-defense
Late in the day on Thursday, 20 March, after the
coaliton's precision decapitation attacks on the Iraqi regime had been
launched, the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) crossed over the Iraqi
border with Kuwait and began what later would be described as a "steel
wave" advance through southern Iraq toward Baghdad. Orions--15,000
feet above that steel wave--provided unit force protection to the MEF
to support the speedy dash north.
Navy P-3s provided the Marines with real-time reconnaissance--pioneered
in the OEF operations in Afghanistan--of terrain and enemy activity in
the darkness beyond their moving positions. The P-3s also provided real-time
situational awareness of the battlefield--an advantage sorely lacking
in the first Gulf War--that significantly facilitated the Marines' rush
across the desert.
As the Marines pushed on, the high flying P-3s continued
to report on the Iraqi forces ahead, provided targeting information which
the Marines used to attack enemy positions both with artillery and with
bombs launched from strike aircraft. The Orions pinpointed the positions
of a number of Iraqi armored tanks and vehicles lying in wait, as well
as key bridges that the Marines were able to take before they could be
destroyed by Iraqi troops. As I MEF approached Baghdad, the Orions reconnoitered
a number of military bases and airfields ringing the city.
In other OIF combat operations, P-3s supported SOFs
in commando raids on the Kaabot and Mabot oil terminal platforms in the
Northern Persian Gulf, and an air assault on an associated oil pumping
terminal at the tip of the Al Faw Peninsula. Securing the platforms was
deemed critical by the coalition to prevent Iraqi sabotage much like that
perpetrated by the Saddam Hussein regime in the first Gulf War (1990-91)
on these same facilities, causing an unprecedented ecological disaster
in the Persian Gulf.
P-3s initially provided reconnaissance of the oil
facilities and platforms, then transmitted real-time surveillance video
of the operation--conducted by SEALs and Royal Marines--back to operational
commanders in their headquarters. The SOFs secured the oil platforms--which
had already, in fact, been rigged for sabotage--and neutralized the Iraqi
forces at the pumping facility.
During the operation to secure the oil facilities,
one P-3 detected and identified a number of Iraqi naval patrol boats in
the vicinity. The boats were suspected of laying sea mines in the approaches
to the Al Faw Peninsula and the port of Umm Qasr. In a successful joint
operation, the P-3 tracked the boats throughout the commando raid and
passed targeting data to an Air Force AC-130 gunship, which destroyed
Orions supported other SOFs and Marine units farther
inland in an operation to secure the Ramallah oil fields in southern Iraq.
During initial reconnaissance of the Ramallah fields, P-3 crews detected
a number of oil wells already on fire. Marines were immediately dispatched
to secure the oil fields. The Orion's real-time video was transmitted
back to the combat commanders who were monitoring the operation and evaluating
the impact on the environment caused by the burning wells.
The sophisticated sensors and data links installed
in the AIP P-3C--combined with their imaginative employment in such new
roles as the direct support of SOFs--give operational commanders a new
platform of exceptional utility. The lessons learned--in both Afghanistan
and Iraq--will be used in the Multimission Maritime Aircraft program,
which is designed to replace the current P-3. Maintaining the several
new capabilities developed in OEF and OIF will give field commanders in
future operations a flexible new platform that will help them to cut through
the fog of war. *
David Reade, a consultant specializing in maritime patrol aviation, is
a marketing manager for IMP Aerospace in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.