Naval Air: EP-8 Replaced By Robots


August 18, 2011: After several years of debate, the U.S. Navy has decided to replace its specialized versions of its P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft with UAVs, and not a new manned aircraft. This will be done by the end of the decade. The most widely used P-3 “special” is the EP-3 signals (electronic) reconnaissance aircraft. It will be replaced by a special version of the RQ-4N Global Hawk, and one or more smaller UAVs.

Until three years ago, the plan was to adapt the new P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft as the EP-8. But then technological change intervened. Sensor and radar technology was, and is, changing so quickly that the U.S. Air Force and Navy were having a hard time designing a replacement for their current electronic warfare (EW) aircraft. The Navy wanted to replace the EW version of its P-3 reconnaissance aircraft (EP-3). The navy believed that sensors have become small enough, and cheap enough, that they can load up a Boeing 737 with radar, sensors, computers, mini-UAVs and the people needed to run it all, and perform functions formerly taken care of by several different aircraft. This new Super Snooper was to be the EP-8. It was to use an AESA radar for scanning the sea (or land) below in great detail. Also to be used were dozens of antennas (built into the aircraft skin), for detecting any kind of nearby electronic emissions. The EP-8 would be used for a wider array of missions than its predecessor, the EP-3. In addition to the traditional trolling off the coast of, say, China, North Korea or Iran, to detect how the locals use their electronic devices (radars, communications, whatever), the EP-8 would also fly over combat zones seeking out cell phone, walkie-talkie or other radio use, and locating the people involved. The EP-8 would carry missiles, as well as small UAVs that can be used to test enemy air defenses (which can result in a missile to take out the hostile radar). All this turned out to be more expensive and complex than the navy could afford, especially when there were increasingly cheaper and effective UAV alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Boeing 737 is still being used as the P-3 replacement (the P-8As), which enters service in two years. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet, compared to the four engine turboprop P-3, it is a more capable plane. The P8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3, and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs spotted by sonar arrays or satellites.

However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons, versus 5.6.) This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobouys) are pound-for-pound, more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew, of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.

The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with bomb hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design, and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3 (which was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built, plus 600 P-3s. About 40 Electras are still in service). The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built. The P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and four wing racks for weapons.

The EP-8 was to be fitted for aerial refueling; something the air force was not enthusiastic about. But the navy was pitching the EP-8 as a "strategic asset" (looking for critical information to fill out the "big picture" for the most senior leaders). So the air force was under pressure to play along. The navy was adopting some air force practices, like putting many of the EP-8 crew (the sensor operators) on the ground, back in the U.S., and linked to the EP-8 via satellite. The air force has had great success doing this with their Predator and Reaper UAVs, which are flown by operators stationed in the American Midwest. It was this practice, of putting equipment on the ground, with smaller and smaller sensors available, that finally killed the EP-8. While the P-8 could use all the carrying capacity for anti-submarine weapons, this was not needed on the EP-8 version. So the EP-8 died, replaced by smaller, cheaper and longer range UAVs. The navy currently operates 16 EP-3s, and a few other even more specialized P-3s.

Thus the P-8A looks like it will be the last maritime reconnaissance aircraft with people aboard. In fact, there are a growing number of UAV proponents in the navy and air force who want the next generation of aircraft to be unmanned. But the UAV technology (particularly the reliability) is not quite there yet for the P-8, but will be soon. For that reason, not as many P-8s may be built as the navy wants (117).





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