In May, 2006, China announced that it will buy the world’s largest amphibious jet airplane for use as a maritime patrol aircraft. China is buying an anti-submarine warfare version of Russia's Be-200. Russia's main arms exporter, Rosobornexport, is reported to be about to sign a $600 million deal with China toward the end of 2006 for an unnamed number of IRKUT Corporation Be-200s aircraft equipped with Sea Dragon tactical suite. Sea Dragon is designed to detect, localize, and track both surface and sub-surface targets, as well as mines. It advertises the ability to track more than 30 targets at one time from a distance of up to 200 miles. Sea Dragon is also sold as a means to detect airborne targets when linked to Russia’s Glonass satellite navigation system. The suite includes a synthetic-aperture/inverse-synthetic-aperture radar located in a fairing on the belly, a high-resolution forward-looking infra-red sensor, a low-light television camera, a new electronic-support-measures system, and a new magnetic anomaly detector system aft.
The Be-200 first flew in 1998, and over a dozen are on order configured as aerial tankers for fire-fighting duty, capable of landing on water, tanking-up with 24,000 pounds of water, then launching and dropping the water on a fire. As an ASW aircraft it can carry seven tons of equipment, ordnance, and aircrew, although not built to fly particularly slowly (it cruises at 300 knots, with a top speed of 400 K) as is required by maritime air patrol. At a gross weight of about 90,000 pounds, it is considerably lighter than the P-3C, which has a max takeoff weight of about 143,000 pounds. Also, because it is a jet rather than a turboprop airplane as is the P-3, its endurance is a relatively short four hours, versus the P-3’s twelve hours, making it suitable only for short-range coastal patrol without further modification. The Be-200’s jet engines are relatively inefficient at the low altitudes that characterize patrol aviation. China has already said it plans to add fuel capacity to the aircraft. That the Be-200 is an amphibian suggests that China plans to stage these aircraft in out of the way places such as rivers and coastal waterways, perhaps in anticipation of potential attacks from the current generation of diesel-electric attack subs which are highly stealthy but of limited range and duration.
The Be-200 was developed from the A-40/Be-42 'Mermaid'. It has an unusual configuration for such a large aircraft, with a high-mounted swept wing with the engines mounted above the center wing section, a T-tail, and a pressurized two-step, fully water-tight boat hull. Retractable tricycle landing gear allows the Be-200 to operate from paved runways as well. Production versions use two 16,500 pound thrust Progress D-436TP jet engines, although other engine options may become available.
IRKUT is also trying to interest different passenger airlines in a Be-200 variant and discussions are reported to be continuing to start experimental flights in California. The aircraft has reportedly been designed and will be tested in conformity with FAR-25 airworthiness standards which will ease its certification under the U.S. Federal Air Register and European Air Register. To date, the Be-200 has been configured for the following roles: Firefighting; Patrol (Be-200P); Cargo-Passenger; Search and Rescue; Air Ambulance; Ecology/fisheries control; and Executive transport.
Coming soon to a Chinese river near you...?
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