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Maritime Patrol Aircraft [MPA]

The maritime patrol aircraft is a true multi-mission platform. Although more widely known as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, it can conduct a wide variety of missions, making it one of the most functional and flexible systems available to any operational commander. The development of patrol aviation in the U.S. Navy is really the story of Naval Aviation itself. It began as early as 1908, when the Navy detailed Lieutenant George C. Sweet and Naval Constructor William McIntee as observers at a test of a Wright brothers airplane at Fort Meyer, Va. They were so impressed by what they saw that the Navy extended an invitation to the Wright brothers to attempt the launch of one of their inventions from a battleship. The Wright brothers declined this opportunity to make aviation history. It was left to a Glenn H. Curtiss pilot, Eugene Ely, to make the first flight from a ship, flying off a platform built on the bow of the cruiser Birmingham (CL 2) at Hampton Roads, Va., on 14 November 1910.

Because maritime operations did not typically involve the risk of encountering enemy high performance fighters (except directly along an enemy coastline or -- for the Germans -- after the emergence of the Anglo-American escort carrier) that deep-penetration missions into an enemy's heartland did, single or multiengine aircraft of modest performance could often make contributions all out of proportion to their true abilities. The Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79-II Sparviero ("Sparrow") torpedo bomber, an Italian trimotor that enjoyed surprising success against Allied shipping in the Mediterranean, exemplified this. Armed with two torpedoes, it was largely responsible for the 63 Royal Navy ships lost to Italian air attack in the Mediterranean; indeed, in the words of one British aeronautical historian, "the exploits of Italy's torpedo-bombing squadrons equipped with this type, the Aerosiluranti, were almost legendary." The German Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber and the Heinkel He 111 torpedo bomber, and the British Bristol Beaufort and Vickers Wellington constitute other examples of less-than-fully successful airplanes that nevertheless exerted significant influence within the maritime arena, particularly against merchant convoys.

From the early 1970s, the USN maintained a force of 24 active P-3 squadrons (9 aircraft per squadron) and 13 reserve squadrons (6-8 aircraft per squadron). In 1988 each active squadron was reduced to 8 aircraft and the reserves stabilized at 8 as well. With the Cold War, funding became rather difficult for MPA, as pressure to reduce anti-submarine warfare assets in the absence of a Soviet submarine threat translated into deep cuts for the P-3 community. In 1990, there were 24 active patrol squadrons; by 1996, there were 12 -- the largest cut among all navy platforms (with submarines a close second at 47 percent).

Rear Admiral A. R. Maness, USN asserted in August 1992 that "The U.S. Navy's patrol aviation lineage goes back further than any other naval aviation community's, and its underlying surveillance, reconnaissance, and antisurface warfare missions remain as valid today as they were 75 years ago. In addition, maritime patrol aviation has, over two world wars and one persistent cold war, been a key player in antisubmarine warfare, while sustaining competence in its other primary mission areas. The patrol aviation community was not generated during the Cold War to counter a Soviet submarine threat, and it has not had to invent a multimission role as Soviet submarines have returned home to political turmoil."

Antisubmarine Warfare emerged in the "war against the U-boats" as the primary focus for maritime patrol throughout the Great War. During World War I, patrol aircraft searched almost one million square miles of submarine-infested waters, as ASW was the primary role of naval aviation. Although without the weapons necessary to achieve direct kills, navy seaplanes disrupted U-boat operations, assisted escort destroyers in recording 24 submarine kills, and significantly advanced the role of aircraft in conducting ASW operations. With improved weapons and detection capability in World War II, MPA forces protected vulnerable shipping routes and were instrumental in deciding the Battle of the Atlantic, where U.S. Navy and Royal Air Force Coastal Command shore-based assets combined to sink 245 U-boats, or 31 percent of the entire German U-Waffe.

During the 1970s and 1980s, MPA gained a rightful reputation as ASW weapon systems of exceptional capability. Their high-visibility mission of locating and tracking patrolling Soviet ballistic missile submarines was a cornerstone of our national strategic defense. During this period, the preponderance of MPA training and operations was focused on this critical mission area. The dissolution of the Soviet Union changed the calculus of national defense overall, and certainly reduced the importance of ASW

The Anti-Surface Warfare mission area dates to the inception of maritime patrol aviation. Today's sensors and systems brought P-3s into the twenty-first century. The inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) provides a standoff imaging and identification capability. Coupled with satellite communications (SATCOM) and state-of-the-art operational information exchange systems, the ISAR-equipped MPA is an ideal over-the-horizon targeting (OTH/T) platform.

With its quick response from forward employed sites, effective high search rate surveillance, standoff identification and targeting outside the littoral air defense threat, and both long and short range anti-ship missiles, the P-3 is integral to establishing battlespace dominance in support of joint strike operations.

The Coastal Patrol / Ocean Surveillance mission, which is becoming increasingly important in the new world order, MPA can serve as the "eyes and ears" of the fleet. Maritime surveillance was the underlying mission of patrol aviation from the beginning. The first naval aviation unit was a squadron of seaplanes, commissioned to operate with the fleet and to bring naval air power to the sea. Beginning with its early role in aerial surveillance, patrol aircraft have routinely kept watch over coastal waters and open ocean areas throughout the world.

In 1914, AB-3 flying boats conducted minehunting and reconnaissance missions off Veracruz, Mexico to provide intelligence for Atlantic Fleet forces in support of the Mexican crisis. In 1917, the flying boats were the first U.S. combatants to participate in World War I by conducting coastal surveillance in European waters. And in 1942, it was PBY patrol planes which located and conducted the first attack on approaching Japanese naval forces during the pivotal Battle of Midway. Throughout the World War II Pacific campaigns, the Korean war, the Vietnam war and Desert Storm, MPA forces have exercised this primary surveillance mission while providing timely, accurate intelligence on contacts at sea.

Current ISAR provides a superb search, tracking, imaging, and identification capability, even in coastal waters. The MPA electronic support measures/countermeasures (ESM/ECM) systems provide monitoring, collection and identification of the adversary's electronic emissions. The range and endurance of MPA make them uniquely well-suited to this surveillance mission.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:34:23 ZULU