A four-engine turboprop aircraft is waiting to be deployed on the airfield of the Nordholz Naval Air Base. The former Royal Netherlands Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion is a persistent scout and feared submarine hunter. It is an important element of NATO ‘s “ Assurance Measures ” reconnaissance missions in the Baltic Sea region.
“Information is always the basis of a decision,” says frigate captain Jens P. in a nutshell. It’s a constant process. The German Navy’s P-3C has a flexibility as an aircraft that makes it ideal for intelligence gathering. On the one hand, due to its altitude and its reconnaissance technology, it has a much greater range than a ship. On the other hand, she can quickly lower her flight altitude and check a suspicious ship up close with her camera technology. From its home base in Nordholz, Lower Saxony, it only takes a few hours to reconnoiter a sea area in the Mediterranean.
Today the goal is the Baltic Sea. The machine is on site in just under an hour. This is a flight for NATO’s Assurance Measures mission, aiming to provide a 24-hour situational picture of ship movements in the Baltic Sea. What sounds so bureaucratic is an important building block for the security of the Baltic States and Poland. Due to the Ukraine war and the fact that the main base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet is located in Baltiysk (the outskirts of Kaliningrad), these missions have become even more important.
Originally designed as a classic submarine hunter, the P-3C developed into a powerful maritime patrol aircraft. It has ideally complementary reconnaissance resources. First contact with a surface unit is made by the APS-137B long-range surface radar. The radar antenna emits electromagnetic waves and large metallic objects such as a ship reflect them. The radar contact generated in this way is compared with information obtained from other sensors on the aircraft. In this way, the crew can quickly check whether the contact is a navaid, a ship or even an island.
Civil ships have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that allows them to be identified. The radio system improves safety and the control of shipping traffic by exchanging navigation and other ship data. Contacts without an AIS signal trigger an interest in reconnaissance.
A third system, the Electronic Support Measures AN/ALR-95 (ESM), can be used to check electromagnetic emissions of any kind. This clarifies whether it is a civilian or a military radar system that is installed on the ship. In addition, a high-resolution camera is used to identify ships. The video and infrared sensor MX-20HD has a very long range day and night.
Sonar buoys on the one hand and the ASQ-81 (MAD) magnetic anomaly detector on the other hand are used for reconnaissance of underwater objects. The buoys are dropped and sounds in the water can be recorded using a hydrophone, a type of underwater microphone. The detector is located in the distinctive spike on the P-3C’s tail. It can be used to detect deviations in the Earth’s natural magnetic field. This can be a rock layer with a high iron content, but also a submerged submarine. A pointer inside the aircraft, similar to a seismograph, shows every change through deflections.
If a ship or submarine is spotted, this contact is immediately reported in encrypted form to a headquarters on land or at sea. There the decision is made as to how to proceed. The order can be, for example, to covertly stay close to the contact or even to observe him openly and thus show presence.
After landing, the reconnaissance results are summarized in a written report. This can be supplemented with further details, such as an intercepted radar transmission, or photos taken by the contacts. The tactical behavior of the spotted foreign units is of great interest for one’s own military intelligence. This will give you a better understanding of their military capabilities.
All data recorded during the flight are collected, analysed, processed and forwarded by the company’s own ground stations for electronic warfare. Through these findings, the own weapons and reconnaissance systems are optimized. Specialized image evaluators go through the material in detail.
“During a flight, you receive an incredible amount of data,” says frigate captain Jens P. Filtering and processing it is the task of several operators on board. The data helps the mission leader to make the right decision. This results in a high level of responsibility for each individual operator. The special challenge is that the P-3C is traveling at 250 knots, i.e. around 460 kilometers per hour. That doesn’t leave much time for a decision.
In addition to teamwork, an operator must have a sense of what is important at the moment. Resilience is also a must. The long flight times require the ability to maintain concentration for hours.
The training in Nordholz to become an operator lasts at least one year. It starts with checking your physical fitness in the high-pressure chamber, a language test in English, the naval aviation qualification, and recognizing ships and aircraft. This is followed by specialist training as an underwater or surface operator.