A Saab 340 maritime surveillance aircraft was on display at the Dubai Airshow and was marketed as a cheaper alternative to maritime planes from other nations. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
DUBAI — With neighbors like Iran and Yemen and the Arabian Gulf as the super highway for much of their trade, the region’s interest in special missions and maritime surveillance capabilities at the Dubai Airshow was significant last week.
The transactions to purchase many of these aircraft go on behind closed doors. The capabilities of some of these systems — like being able to peer deep into a neighbor’s territory while staying just within your border — is not necessarily something you want to advertise.
But company executives at the show report interest across the region in equipment ranging from small, twin-engine platform suppliers like the Diamond DA42 up to Boeing’s 737-based P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, which made its Dubai debut.
“The gulf region is one of the fastest growing market sectors for special mission aircraft as customers [have] the needs and the budgets to acquire aircraft,” said Justin Ladner, who heads up Beechcraft’s special mission sales effort worldwide.
Speaking at the Dubai Airshow, the Beechcraft executive reported high levels of interest in special mission aircraft at the event.
“It’s been one of the busiest shows of the year for us in what has been a busy year,” he said.
Kevin Raftery, the airborne system vice president and general manager at UTC Aerospace Systems, said new generation technologies are reducing the size of high capability sensors to make them a viable payload for small, twin-engine aircraft like the Beechcraft King Air 350ER.
A lightweight version of UTC’s used DB-110 reconnaissance pod has already test flown on a General Atomics Predator UAV, and Raftery confirmed the system is being bid to potential gulf customers on the King Air.
A bigger version of the pod is widely used by the US, British and others for long-range, standoff reconnaissance using cameras and infrared imaging capabilities.
It’s not just aircraft and sensor-makers looking at the opportunities in the region.
The growing fleet of Beechcraft King Air 350ERs and other aircraft providing special mission capabilities from air ambulances to intelligence gathering also need support.
Specialist maintenance and repair operators such as Britain’s Gama Aviation see a requirement here to provide the skills they have honed supporting aircraft like the King Air 350ER Shadow R1 signals intelligence machines used by Britain’s Royal Air Force, primarily in Afghanistan.
The company already has a base for business aircraft support in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is looking at projects to expand into military and civil special mission in the region.
Marwan Khalek, Gama Aviation’s CEO, said the company is looking to provide support facilities for several potential special missions customers in the region.
Boeing used the show to unveil a tie-up with business jet maker Bombardier and aircraft modifier Field Aviation to launch a maritime surveillance machine based on the Challenger 605.
Kitted out with a Selex ES Seaspray radar and FLIR Systems electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) imaging system and other sensors, the new platform will cost about a third of the price of a P-8A but is not able to undertake anti-submarine warfare (ASW) work like its bigger brother.
A demonstrator aircraft is being worked on by Field Aviation with a first flight scheduled for next year. Executives from the company said they were already in discussions with several potential customers in the gulf region.
It wasn’t just Boeing using the show to try to attract buyers for its maritime surveillance capabilities.
Customers not able to afford the Challenger 605 or have a need for its capabilities might have gravitated toward Saab, with its modified 340 twin turboprop plane.
Saab marketing Vice President Rickard Hjelmberg said its maritime surveillance aircraft was available at a cost of “$19 million-$20 million ... a tenth of the price of a fully equipped maritime patrol aircraft.”
The Saab demonstration aircraft kitted out with a Telephonics surveillance radar, a retractable FLIR System EO/IR turret and other systems made its Dubai debut.
Hjelmberg said the 340 maritime surveillance machine was best suited to coast guard and light military duties such as anti-piracy, search and rescue, smuggling and illegal immigration.
Like Boeing, the Saab 340 doesn’t offer ASW capabilities, although its bigger offering in the market — the Saab 2000 maritime patrol aircraft — does.
Boeing’s Challenger 605 and Saab’s 340 may not conduct ASW, but it’s a market space Beechcraft is looking to occupy as it considers adding the capability on the King Air, Ladner said.
The executive said Beechcraft has been approached by several systems integrators for an ASW-light concept, capable of combating the increasing numbers of mini-submarines being used by drug smugglers and the military.
Ladner said ASW is an emerging market for Beechcraft and he expects to receive several tenders in the next year that an ASW-capable version of the King Air 350ER could address. Some of those requests would be for customers in the gulf region, he said.