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Did Pakistan drop Leonardo as lead on Sea Sultan aircraft conversion?

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A visitor disembarks from an Embraer Lineage 1000 aircraft at the Asian Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition held in Shanghai on March 27, 2012. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan’s Navy has inducted into service its first Embraer Lineage 1000 jetliner, which is to be converted into the “Sea Sultan” design under the country’s long-range maritime patrol aircraft program. However, there remain unanswered questions surrounding the selection of a prime contractor and which company will carry out the conversion.

The Sept. 2 induction ceremony took place at PNS Mehran naval air station, where the P-3C Orion aircraft — which will be replaced by the Sea Sultan — operates.

A Navy release stated two more Lineage 1000 aircraft are under contract to “be equipped with the latest weapons and sensors to undertake Maritime Air Operations.”

Defense News reported in October that Pakistan selected the Brazilian-made Lineage 1000 for the program.

Pakistan previously hired Italy’s Leonardo as the prime contractor for the program, Defense News reported in July, and South Africa’s Paramount Group was to prepare the aircraft for conversion. But a source with knowledge of Pakistan’s defense programs told Defense News that Paramount Group is the lead contractor, with Leonardo relegated to supplying hardware.

He said Leonardo seems to have accepted this, knowing it could gain the experience to eventually independently offer a Lineage 1000 conversion. It’s unclear why Paramount Group was given the lead role.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the program, added that the first Sea Sultan will likely be used for training and liaison missions.

Former Australian defense attache to Islamabad and independent analyst Brian Cloughley described the Sea Sultan program as uncharacteristically quick by Pakistani standards.

“Acquisition of the new patrol aircraft is a welcome development for the PN, but it is intriguing that the usually lengthy contract process has taken such a short time. Apparently there were no competing tenders, and it is not known, indeed, if conventional procedures were followed,” he said.

“There has been no indication of exactly what systems exist in the aircraft delivered, and it is probable that much more work requires to be carried out. Involvement of South Africa’s Paramount Group is notable, and it is regrettable that the project’s mechanism is shrouded in unnecessary concealment.”

Publicly available information shows Paramount Group’s aerial platform experience is with light aircraft, UAVs and modernizing South Africa’s decommissioned fleet of Mirage F1 fighters.

The company did not return requests for comment on its capabilities regarding conversion and systems integration on larger platforms. Leonardo also did not respond to a request for comment.

Like other Pakistani procurement programs, the Ministry of Defence Production is handling the Sea Sultan effort. Defense News made several requests to the ministry to clarify whether Paramount Group is the lead contractor on the Sea Sultan program; on what basis it was selected; and how the contract was finalized so quickly, but there was no response.

Pakistan’s military has good working relationships with Leonardo as well as Germany’s Rheinland Air Service and Turkish Aerospace Industries, and those firms have considerable experience relevant to the Sea Sultan program. Paramount Group does not appear to have the same level of experience.

There is also no indication the Lineage 1000′s manufacturer, Embraer, is involved in the program. Analyst Alexandre Galante, who previously served in Brazil’s Navy, believes the company could have contributed its know-how, as it previously converted the E190 (from which the Lineage 1000 is derived).

“Embraer carried out studies a few years ago of a maritime patrol version of the E-Jet E190, but the project did not go ahead” he said, citing a lack of financial resources to invest in new equipment, as the military budget is mainly consumed by pay and pensions. “For this reason, the Brazilian Air Force purchased used P-3A aircraft and hired Airbus to modernize them.”

Nevertheless, he added, “Brazilians are looking with interest at the changes that the Pakistan Navy will make to the Embraer Lineage.”

But Guy Martin, who has followed South African military developments since 2004 and is an editor at defenceWeb, is confident Paramount Group can successfully carry out the conversion.

He pointed to work done by the company’s Paramount Advanced Technologies division (previously Advanced Technologies and Engineering) in supplying avionics for South Africa’s Hawk trainers as well as upgrading Spain’s Mirage F1s, Algeria’s Super Hind Mk3s and Azerbaijan’s Super Hind Mk4s. That gave the firm considerable experience in “weapons, sighting systems, helmet systems, and cockpit/avionics upgrades,” he added.

The division currently offers rotary- and fixed-wing integrated mission systems, such as its FLASH (Flexible Light Armaments System for Helicopters) weapon and sensor kit, which is already fitted to Iraqi Airbus EC635 helicopters. Its similar SWIFT system (Smart Weapons Integration on Fast-Jet Trainers) integrates a range of South African guided and unguided weaponry.

It can therefore integrate a wide variety of equipment, “as Paramount has nearly 40 partner companies for its SWIFT and FLASH suites,” Martin said.

“Paramount has also established partnerships with Boeing and more recently Leidos in the United States, and can bring these partners in on conversion projects should it need additional expertise.”