The P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and maritime and over-land patrol aircraft marked its 50th anniversary in service this past summer. Retired Lt. Cmdr. Richard R. Burgess, a tactical coordinator (TACCO) aboard the four-turboprop P-3 remembers that marathon ASW missions could be challenging, but were rewarding, too.
“When you arrived on station, you dropped a bathythermograph buoy to get a picture of the water temperature and profile of ocean conditions,” said Burgess, recalling a Cold War sortie against a Soviet submarine known to be in the area. “After that, you deployed sonobuoys. You’re ‘covert’ in the sense that you’re not putting out any energy via radar or radio.” The buoys are ejected from the P-3 Orion in canisters and deploy on impact with the surface. An inflatable surface float with a radio transmitter remains on the surface to communicate with the P-3, while the remainder of the device descends on a tether into the ocean and listens for the sound of an undersea vessel.
“You’re flying at medium altitude, about 20,000 feet,” said Burgess. “Once you’ve picked up a sub using sonobuoys, you then drop more sonobuoys closer-spaced to the likely location of the sub. It’s a process of getting closer and closer.” The P-3 also carries magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear in a tail boom and an infrared turret under the nose, but a sonobuoy — the word is derived from sonar and buoy — is often its main tool.
Once the Orion crew has nailed the location of its adversary, said Burgess, “You simulate dropping a torpedo. Against a Soviet submarine, you never open your bomb bay doors because that would be considered an act of war.”
Burgess said that while an ASW mission could consume an 18 to 20-hour day, an anti-shipping mission would be shorter, typically 10 hours, because P-3 engines burn more fuel near wavecap level. “For surveillance, flying from Okinawa, for example” – the Obama administration has recently placed renewed emphasis on the Pacific and China – we’d use radar to locate every ship in the area, log its mast sequence, take pictures, and try to determine the size and shape of the ship and its identity. We’d look for unusual cargo, such as armaments or patrol boats on deck.”
As it draws closer to the end of a career, the P-3 Orion is spending more time today overland using sensors to detect ground targets. But potentially hostile nations still have submarines. At least 40 nations operate at least 400 submarines, including about 200 viewed as capable of seriously threatening U.S. sea access (and one potential adversary, Iran, has its own six “half P-3B/half P-3C” Orions known as P-3F models). The U.S. Navy’s aging Orions are flying ASW and anti-shipping missions more frequently than ever at low altitude under conditions that are demanding on both crew and airframe.
Replacing The Orion
The U.S. Navy was early with a plan to replace its Orions with a fleet of 125 P-7A Long-Range Air ASW-Capable Aircraft (LRAACA). This was a turboprop aircraft that looked like an Orion on steroids and was chosen in preference to a version of the Douglas DC-9 powered by two ultra-high bypass, unducted fan engines. The promising P-7A was cancelled over fixed-cost contract issues on July 20, 1990, leaving the Orion without a successor.
Because of so much time at low level, age is now an issue. Even the most ardent fans of the Orion have known for years that the end of the story is drawing closer. Lockheed completed its final California-built P-3, a Canadian CP-140A Aurora model, at Palmdale in September 1991, four years before its merger with Martin Marietta. A month earlier, the Navy said it would ask for about $25 million in long-term funding to resume production of the P-3 to fill the “gap” created by cancellation of its one-time candidate as an Orion replacement, the turboprop P-7A LRAACA. The Navy discussed, but never bought, a “stretched” version of the P-3, to add range and room for avionics and new-technology turboprop propellers. The hope for a resumption of production for U.S. forces ever materialized.
A purchase by South Korea of eight Orions enabled the planemaker, now named Lockheed Martin, to move production of the aircraft to the plant it has long operated in Marietta, Ga. The first of the Korean P-3Cs made its initial flight at Marietta on Dec. 12, 1994. The last new-build aircraft was delivered the following year – the final Orion manufactured in the United States.
Production by Kawasaki continued. The last Japanese-built Orion was delivered to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force on Feb. 1, 2000 – the final “new build” P-3 in the world.
The Navy is having good success with the replacement aircraft of the near future, the P-8A Poseidon, a major defense program that seems to be on-budget and on-time. The service now has formed plans to achieve a ready-to-deploy squadron of the replacement P-8A Poseidon nine months earlier than once scheduled. Still, the Orion will continue to be crucial for years to come. Supporters of P-3 upgrades and of the Poseidon worry about the “fiscal cliff” that will confront Capitol Hill debates on defense spending later this year. While all appears to be well now, one observer said that in any Washington dialogue about dollars, land-based ASW is something “that could easily fall off the corner of the table.”
In May 2008, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead singled out the age of the P-3 as the reason for a “deficit” in maritime patrol aircraft, saying 39 Orions, or one-fourth of the 157 planes then in service, had to be abruptly grounded in December 2007 with age-related wing cracks on a portion of the lower outer wing. The Navy was “hurting,” Roughead said, with the average age of a P-3 being 28 years. Lockheed Martin began an ongoing effort to bring P-3s back to the factory for outer wing modifications, and the Navy initiated efforts to achieve a ready-to-deploy squadron of the replacement P-8A Poseidon nine months earlier than previously scheduled.