US Navy to replace EP-3s with unmanned aircraft

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The US Navy has confirmed plans to retire the special mission versions of the Lockheed P-3 by 2020, and replace them with an all-unmanned fleet.

The decision comes as a blow to contractors who had been hoping to extend the service life of the fleet beyond 2020, or introduce new manned aircraft as replacements.

In written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, incoming chief of naval operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the navy's ageing EP-3 Aries and special projects aircraft will be retired in 2019 and 2020.

 The US Navy is to replace its special mission EP-3 aircraft with an all-unmanned fleet by 2020

They will be replaced by an $8 billion investment over the next five years in a family of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, Greenert said.

Those investments include $1.1 billion in the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, $3.9 billion in the Northrop RQ-4N broad area maritime surveillance aircraft, $2.5 billion in the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike programme and $1.1 billion in the medium-range maritime unmanned aircraft system.

Those plans leave no room for extending the service of the EP-3 through outer-wing panel replacements, as Lockheed officials had previously expressed interest in performing.

They also end discussion of a manned EP-X programme, which was cancelled by the navy last year.

Some industry officials had speculated that the service could be interested in a turboprop-powered replacement, similar to the US Air Force's MC-12 Project Liberty, or the US Army's enhanced medium-range airborne surveillance system.

Instead, the navy believes its intelligence-collecting capabilities will be improved by transitioning to a larger fleet of long-endurance, unmanned aircraft, Greenert said.

Such systems are also more "tailorable and scalable" to changing needs, he added.

The USN currently operates 16 EP-3 Aries surveillance aircraft, plus an uncertain number of special projects aircraft based on the same platform.