Naval Air: January 23, 2004

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: Following years of preparation and a number of false starts and requirement changes, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Maritime Surveillance Aircraft Program Office recently released a request for proposal for the P-3C replacement the Multimission Maritime Aircraft. 

Nominally closing-out the era of P-3C upgrades, ten of the last of twenty-five updated P-3C aircraft were delivered to NAVAIR's Maritime Aircraft Program block modification upgrade program last July, concluding the last extensive non-recurring engineering effort, begun in 1997. This latest P-3C update program -- an effort to standardize the Navy's P-3C force into a common configuration with updated display and control technology-- is at least the tenth upgrade of the P-3 since the P-3A baseline aircraft joined the fleet in 1962. The P-3C update program brings Update II and Update II.5 P-3 aircraft in line with current Update III performance parameters the most advanced P-3C configuration in the US fleet. 

This update includes installation of a significantly improved data processing system with color high-resolution displays at each operator station, an improved acoustic receiver and acoustic data recorder, torpedo and Harpoon weapon system upgrades, a data processing subsystem, and a new ESM system. New Display Control Units operate as integral components of the aircraft's Single Advanced Signal Processor. This effort follows the already concluded P-3C Anti-Surface Warfare Improvement Program. NAVAIR said that this last block of 25 airplanes will bring the total Update III inventory to 165 aircraft. This effort cost was just under $200 million. 

This latest effort is the most recent, just-in-time stopgap work, considering that the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft Program is running into increasing friction; the P-3C is likely to be flying even past its most recent official projected retirement date of 2015, with operations into 2019 now foreseen and duty beyond that possible. While the P-3 airframe was estimated to have a life of 10,000 flying hours, many have now flown more than 20,000, and the wear is becoming critical as "surge tasking" sends P-3s to the ends of the world in support of the US' fight against terrorism. To make matters more dicey, there is just one MPA pot of money: the longer a P-3 stays in service and requires continuing maintenance, the less money the Navy has with which to buy its replacement, the MMA. In fact, the Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft Office is considering retiring as many as 138 older P-3s for just that budgeting purpose. Tasking will be the key.

The Surveillance and Intel version of MMA -- to replace the EP-3E -- was recently shelved as just too expensive. Two hundred and fifty one MMA aircraft were originally envisioned, with the first squadron to have been operational by 2014. The latest estimate is for the first MMA to come on line in 2013 and to have completely replaced the P-3 by 2019. Numbers have changed along with the Navy's ever increasing role in the war on terrorism tied to its relatively unchanged budget. 

Redefining the urgency of the MMA Program, the Navy recently set a schedule for decommissioning all seven Reserve P-3 squadrons (with their 56 or so P-3s) by 2006, although the Navy still has not publicly confirmed this. The Navy's latest plans are said to include only 108 MMAs to replace the P-3Cs, according to Lockheed Martin's Air Mobility Program. The Navy is expected to join the Army's Aerial Common Sensor program as early as next year, and the Navy plans to procure 14 - 25 ACS-N electronic reconnaissance aircraft to replace the EP-3E fleet. 

The two MMA contenders left standing at this point in the game are a variant of the Boeing 737-800 and the Lockheed Martin Orion21, a refurbed and updated P-3. Boeing has taken its multimission maritime concept aircraft on the road to generate support from the US Navy for what could be a $ 2 billion + contract. Lockheed's proposal, the Orion 21, has not yet been unveiled, although it may prove to be a reworked P-7, a P-3 replacement scrubbed by the Navy in 1990 after falling behind in development and upon the collapse of the USSR's huge submarine fleet. For several weeks in November, At the end of 2003, Boeing ferried a stripped MMA 737-800 Mod around to let Navy crews try it out. The demos allowed naval 
aviators feel how the airplane performs in typical maritime patrol and ASW configurations, and in an engine-out emergency (particularly important when replacing the 4-engine P-3 turboprop with a 2-engine jet). Boeing also signed an agreement with four other aerospace companies to form the Boeing Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) industry team. 

The wild card remains money. With funds short and getting shorter, if the war on terrorism gets hotter, there may be no MMA at all. In that case, Lockheed would be in a good position to be chosen to keep the Navy's P-3s flying. Perhaps, like the B-52, the P-3 will find itself flying into the mid-21st century. Proposals from Boeing and Lockheed were due by 29 December. K.B. Sherman

 


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