Genesis of the Swordfish

Jon Lake provides an overview of the Saab Swordfish, a futuristic maritime patrol aircraft based on the Bombardier 6000 business jet


Though Saab’s innovative Swordfish antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft has yet to win an order, it is one of the most important programmes in its class. It promises to break what has been an accelerating cost curve, providing much the same capability as larger rivals at significantly reduced acquisition cost and with much reduced life cycle costs. It has spearheaded the development of a new generation of business jet-based maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and ASW aircraft, which promise to win significant market share.

The continuing global proliferation of smaller, faster, quieter submarines has fuelled a demand for high-end, long-range MPA capable of undertaking ASW operations as well as antisurface warfare, long-range search and rescue and the bread-and-butter maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, including counterpiracy, and maritime counterterrorism.

Legacy long-range, four-engine MPA aircraft like the BAE Systems Nimrod and Lockheed P-3 were expensive to operate and support, and also imposed a heavy manning burden on operators. Today, with smaller, lighter mission, command, control and communications and sensor systems, which are easier to integrate and require less cooling and less power, it is now possible to conduct ASW with smaller, more efficient, more lightly manned aircraft platforms.

Smaller, lighter, twin-turboprop ASW aircraft like the Airbus Military C295 and Leonardo ATR 72 lack the reach, endurance and capability of the big Cold War sub-hunters. However, some air forces and navies need to replace their existing, ageing MPA platforms, and others need to introduce enhanced ASW capabilities. At the same time, the available replacements for aircraft such as the P-3 Orion (aircraft like Kawasaki’s P-1 and Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon) are unaffordable for some potential operators.

Improvements in technology and in automation allow aircraft to fulfil the same role with fewer crew members, and a new class of MPA based on larger, long-range business jets promises to combine P-8A levels of capability, reach and endurance with significantly lower purchase and operating costs.

Sweden’s Swordfish

At the Singapore Air Show in February 2016, Saab announced it would integrate its Swordfish maritime patrol system on the Bombardier Q400 turboprop regional airliner and on the Global 6000 business jet.

Joakim Mevius, Saab’s then head of airborne ISR, explained that with an increasing maritime threat: “[Following] a lot of discussions with potential customers regarding future requirements in the field of maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare, Saab had introduced new platforms in order to address the demand for greater capability and fiexibility.” The company was also mindful of the increasing trend towards commercial jet solutions, and saw the Global 6000 and the use of commercially procured off-theshelf hardware as a means of providing levels of capability close to the American P-8 Poseidon at 70% of the flyaway cost and 50% of the life cycle costs.

Why the Global 6000?

The Global 6000 promised a smaller logistics footprint than the P-8, with reduced manning and a real ability to be self-sufficient when deployed, and offered growth potential in terms of weight, cooling and power.

Neither the DHC-8 nor the Global Express was entirely new to the MPA role, with the United Arab Emirates Air Force having fielded a pair of MPA-configured DHC-8 Q300s in 2012, with L3 offering a Q400 MMA (multi-mission aircraft) and with IAI/Elbit offering its ELI-3360 MPA package on both the Q400 and the Gulfstream G550. Saab selected the larger Global 6000 because of its bigger cabin, greater redundancy, synthetic vision system and ability to be weaponised. The cabin provides a clean, spacious, ergonomic workplace to help maintain crew concentration and capacity. Each operator sits in front of a single, 30in (760mm) display screen and further situational displays are provided on the flight deck and at the sonobuoy launchers, providing collective situational awareness for the whole crew.

Rather than simply fitting the existing Swordfish system to the new platforms, Saab also introduced a new C4 (for command, control, communications and computer) capability, which promised to do the same mission with fewer operators. The company also reinforced and highlighted the armed capabilities of the system.

On the Q400-based solution, Saab, like other companies offering DHC-8 based MPA, planned to incorporate additional fuel tanks in fuselage-mounted sponsons, giving the aircraft a patrol time of about five-anda- half hours, 200 nautical miles (370km) out from base. It also featured an integrated mission display and an in-flight operable airdrop door and two underwing weapons stations. Saab described the aircraft as: “still being a high-end solution”, albeit with marginally less endurance than the Global 6000-based Swordfish.

From the launch of the new Swordfish, however, Saab’s emphasis was on the Global 6000-based aircraft, which shares about 70% commonality with the company’s new GlobalEye Swing Role Surveillance System, a launch order for which was announced in November 2015 at the Dubai Air Show.

The GlobalEye, three of which are on order for the United Arab Emirates Air Force, is based on the Bombardier Global 6000 and represents a continuation of Saab’s popular Erieye airborne early warning and control system, with a new gallium nitride-based Erieye ER active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar in a fairing above the fuselage. This provides wide-area ground moving target indication radar modes, as well as searching for airborne targets.

It is not fitted to the Swordfish, though the latter aircraft does use the same mission management system, electronic warfare and self-protection systems, automatic identification system and most of the same communications systems, and both aircraft have the same belly-mounted radome and Selex Seaspray 7500E 360° maritime surveillance AESA radar and FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE 380HD electro-optical and infrared sensor turret.

By the time Saab launched the new, Global 6000-based Swordfish, the company had further reinforced its ASW credentials, not least because of the acquisition of the Kockums shipyard to Saab from ThyssenKrupp on July 22, 2014. With Kockums as part of the Saab group, the company found itself as the manufacturer of the next-generation A26 submarine with air independent propulsion and GHOST (for Genuine HOlistic STealth) technology. Kockums forms just part of a unique maritime portfolio that now includes submarines, surface vessels and torpedoes, as well as MPA. As a result, Saab contends it really understands the maritime domain and the demands of modern-day ASW.

As for the Swordfish, Saab’s in-house expertise is augmented by the decades of experience gained by partners including GDMS-Canada, CAE and sonobuoy specialists Ultra Electronics UK.

Saab’s own Bombardier Global 6000-BD- 700-1A10 aircraft, registered in Sweden as SE-RMT, was used for proving and flying simulated ASW/MPA mission profiles in support of the Swordfish development effort, but no prototype or demonstrator is being produced. Saab reasoned that any prototype would likely be unrepresentative of a customer aircraft and would thus be of limited use.


As the successor to both the US Navy’s P-3 Orion and the RAF’s Nimrod, Boeing is positioning the P-8A Poseidon as the new gold standard among high-end ASW aircraft. Poseidon carries out ASW in a revolutionary new way (from medium to high altitude) and relies on the use of multiple receiver buoys in a multistatic field to allow wide-area searches. Neither these tactics nor this equipment has been properly proven operationally, and Saab has optimised the Global 6000-based Swordfish for the demands of low-level ASW operations, which is where it believes the game is truly won or lost.

Saab is sceptical about high-altitude ASW operations. It believes that while it may be advantageous to fly higher to save fuel, to increase crew comfort and to increase the effective range of some sensors, the maritime environment and the nature of the target and tactics will often make it necessary to descend to low level, perhaps below a thick layer of cloud, in poor visibility, and with a high sea state.

EO/IR sensors in particular give better resolution at closer ranges and lower altitudes, and require the aircraft to be below the cloud layer.

Magnetic anomaly detectors (MAD) can only be used to pinpoint the location of a submerged submarine at low level. Many believe that MAD remains a viable and indeed vital confirmation sensor, especially useful if rules of engagement do not allow an attack to be carried out using acoustic information alone.

Acoustic sensor performance is not directly affected by the altitude of the aircraft, since a sonobuoy’s sensor is below the sea surface, and the radio link to and from the sonobuoy may be picked up from longer range by a high-flying MPA, though there will be a danger of greater RF interference.

Moreover, the precision with which buoys can be dropped will be negatively affected by launching them at higher altitude. There will consequently be increased difficulty in ensuring the security of pattern, and there may be poor accuracy in placing any in-fill buoys. Modern sonobuoys may be fitted with GPS, but this ensures only that the ASW aircraft crew knows where a buoy is, even when it’s in the wrong place. The precise placing of sonobuoys can be critical, as one experienced ASW operator explained: “You only need to lose contact with a single source sonobuoy and it can be time to give up and go home; you may not re-establish contact in the remaining endurance.”

Operating at low altitude minimises the tactical reaction time of the aircraft, allowing it to react more quickly to a submarine’s manoeuvres. It minimises the time it takes to get a buoy into the water and to start sending back meaningful information, and it allows the ASW aircraft to get a weapon into the water quickly.

Even in clear weather and without RF interference, questions may legitimately be asked of the practicality of operating an ASW aircraft in restricted airspace, at higher altitude, and perhaps having to drop sonobuoys, weapons and even small unmanned air vehicles through layers and layers of busy and controlled airspace, which might easily be the case in some oceans and in other busy shipping areas.

There is focus on the use of multistatic acoustics, with all the passive sonobuoys within a field acting as receivers for the active buoys. The proprietary Multistatic Active Coherent (MAC) system used on the P-8A is much trumpeted, with claims that this variation on the Multistatic Active (MSA) theme somehow represents a unique capability.

In fact, MSA has been around for a long time, and a global community of military, industry and research communities has been testing the concept for decades. Operational results have been modest in most cases and current reports show that MAC and its equivalents have not proven rigid in the full range of conditions required.

Saab has therefore provided a fully modern multistatic-capable system on the Swordfish, but views multistatics as one (increasingly valuable) tool in the ASW toolbox, highlighting the significant leap forward in passive acoustic technology achieved by GD-MS and demonstrated on the CP-140 Aurora, as well as the improvements in MAD technology.

One Swordfish programme insider said: “The global MPA community has wrestled with MSA for decades, and so we will not base our platform ethos singularly on the promise of multistatic.”

In most other respects, the similarities between the Swordfish and the P-8A are more obvious than the differences. Both aircraft have five or six mission consoles and a similar sensor suite, though Swordfish has a 360° AESA radar and a MAD. Swordfish enjoys a marginally longer range and slightly longer endurance, and carries slightly more sonobuoys, with two 10-shot rotary launchers, two pressurised single-shot launchers and racks for 112 A-sized, 224 G-sized or 336 F-sized buoys (a total of 134 buoys compared to the 129 all A-sized buoys on the P-8A). With its mix of underwing pylons for air-to-surface missiles and an internal weapons bay, the Poseidon carries a heavier payload, but the Swordfish can carry more torpedoes (six as opposed to five).

Torpedoes are largely a deterrent, so carrying large numbers is probably unnecessary. Even a single torpedo in the water will disrupt a submarine commander’s decision-making.

Some have called the Global 6000-based Swordfish ‘the smart man’s P-8’, since it offers significantly lower acquisition and operating costs with no areas of compromise. The aircraft is marketed as a high-end, multi-mission MPA and ASW aircraft and strategic ISR platform, with a true next-generation C2 system that enables shorter decision-making times.

AIR International points out that while there is every reason to believe that a Swordfish will be a capable MPA, the P-8A Poseidon and its systems together make a good MPA. Remember, the P-8A is in service with the world’s most powerful navy, one with plenty of MPA experience and therefore requirement specialists, has won four export contracts and has already served around the world on combat and humanitarian missions for a number of years. Saab’s credentials certainly hold water, but its product has yet to prove itself or indeed win an order.

No surprise, however, that Saab maintains it has potential customers on every continent; the aircraft seems especially well suited to replace New Zealand’s ageing fieet of P-3K Orions.

Saab also says the aircraft can also be delivered quickly, promising a 36 to 42-month period from contract award to delivery, depending on precise configuration.

Sweden’s aerospace giant has plenty of aeronautical and integration experience, and can hold hands with a customer that might be new to the kind of technology designed into the Swordfish. This should ensure potential customers will get a meaningful capability with appropriate training and concept of operations.