Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Orions With Dry Feet

Sea Power, the magazine of the Navy League of the United States, has an interview with Rear Adm. Michael L. Holmes, commander, Patrol & Reconnaissance Group, US Navy, about the status and future of the Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Of particular interest in how in-demand the aircraft is among combat commanders, and not for the primary mission of maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The payload, endurance, communications, and sensor suite of the Orion makes it a valued intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform for littoral regions. Interestingly, the operational tempo of the aircraft for conducting ISR missions is compromising ASW readiness and modernization efforts.

ASW has always been our core mission. The other missions sets that come with that — ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and [maritime] interdiction — if you’re doing ASW and using all of your sensors, then the overland ISR become fairly easy to adjust to. When our crews are home in the training cycle they focus on ASW.

Unfortunately, their focus when forward-deployed has been on ISR, so there hasn’t been a lot of ASW readiness generated on deployment. Since the CNO (chief of naval operations) has put new emphasis back into ASW, we have worked with the task force commanders to get as many ASW exercises [as we can] for our forward-deployed squadrons in order to keep their ASW readiness as high as possible. That’s not easy in a place like the [Persian] Gulf.
This situation has been long coming. Here is an excerpt from a 2001 article on eDefense Online written by Ken Sherman, a former P-3 Orion ASW operator, describing how the missions of maritime patrol aircraft increasingly take them over dry land:

Feet Dry: Maritime Patrol Goes Ashore
New roles and missions mean no safe harbor for land forces.

A good aircraft will outlive its design expectations. A great aircraft will excel in roles for which it was not originally designed. A legendary aircraft - the kind people build shrines to in their offices in the form of framed, numbered prints-will do both, and have a cool-sounding name.

By the time it is retired in about 2020, the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion will be being flown by the great-grandchildren of the people who designed it. Littoral ASW. Surface attack. Troop support. ISR. Counter-terrorism and drug interdiction. Datalink. The P-3 is doing it all. And Orion is a pretty cool name to boot.

What's interesting is that this future legend has plenty of company out there in the word of maritime-patrol aircraft (MPA). Other MPAs - such as the MR2/4 Nimrod, Tu-95 Bear, ATL2/3 Atlantique, Il-38 May, and BE-12 - have all performed ASW duties, and most still do. However, due to a combination of changing times and newer technologies, all have added a number of other roles. Clearly, MPA now means, "Multi-Purpose Aircraft."

Current MPA missions include (1) "brown water" anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ; (2) anti-surface ship warfare (ASuW); (3) stand-off land attack; (4) troop support/ground attack; (5) intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); (6) counter-narcotics operations; (7) mining/denying of free passage; (8) search and rescue; (9) datalink; and - in their spare time - (10) deepwater ASW. This multiplicity of missions and roles is requiring an equally diverse array of electronics as sensors. Also, as MPAs go looking for trouble, they are finding themselves more in need of radar warning receivers (RWR), jammers, and expendable countermeasures more indicative of combat aircraft - particularly since MPAs are not very good at protecting themselves. In August 1999, for example, an Indian Air Force MiG-21 shot down an Atlantique of the Pakistani Navy, killing all 16 aboard (see "Pakistani Recce Aircraft Shot Down").

As area commanders afloat and ashore in a post-Cold-War world have seen what long-range patrol aircraft can do, the tasking of maritime-patrol aviation has exploded. Further, with continued DOD and allied military draws-down, Reserve Force MPA assets are assuming an increasingly large portion of maritime- patrol responsibilities. In the past several years, both active-duty and Reserve P-3 crews have flown ongoing missions over Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Middle East, carrying and firing a variety of air-to-surface weapons - no torpedoes, though.

US Navy P-3C Antisurface Warfare Improvement Program (AIP) aircraft today routinely fly armed patrols in the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and other locations. P-3C AIP aircraft flying around-the-clock armed force-protection surveillance missions in the Adriatic have launched Tomahawk missiles against adversaries. P-3Cs routinely provide Surface Combat Air Patrols (SUCAP) for the deployed carrier- battlegroup commander, marking the first time since Vietnam that P-3s have routinely flown armed. P-3s can downlink imagery and other intelligence to the battlegroup, staying aloft for long periods of time. P-3s have fired Standoff Land Attack Missiles (SLAMs) at enemy targets.

Big four-engine turboprops have a number of advantages over fast jets - provided you can keep them from getting shot at. The fact is, if you have air dominance, you can use large, stable, long-legged platforms such as the P-3C and specialized versions of the C-130 Hercules to perform a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance and strike. Moreover, the aircraft are flexible enough to perform a number of missions on the same sortie, all the while functioning as a node in an extended command and control network. As the US Navy consolodates its P-3C fleet in anticipation of receiving the new Boeing P-8 Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), which passed a major program review last April, friendly nations are hoping to acquire castoff Orions and upgrade existing ones, including Thailand, Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, and South Korea.

Defense Industry Daily has been covering the P-3C extensively and has more here.

For more on the Orion's successor, the P-8A (based on the 737), go to eDefense Online:

US Navy Eyes International Involvement in P-8A Development

Contract Imminent for MMA EW, Sensors

Multimission Maritime Aircraft on Schedule

US Navy Awards MMA Contract


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