The US Navy has retired two West Coast-based squadrons of Lockheed Martin S-3B Viking tanker/strike aircraft, launching a five-year plan to divest the entire 107-aircraft fleet. Meanwhile, Bulgaria's military has stepped forward as a possible buyer for some of the used aircraft.


S-3B units are being retired as each new Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadron enters the navy's carrier air groups. Since dropping their original anti-submarine warfare mission four years ago, the navy has operated the S-3Bs as carrier-based tankers and strike assets. An S-3B fired on shore-based targets for the first time during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.


The navy is phasing out the 1970s-era S-3B despite the relative youth of some of its aircraft. The Viking airframe was designed to achieve 13,000 flying hours, although Lockheed Martin believes a small modification package could extend this to 17,500h.


Most S-3Bs have logged around 9,000h to date and the navy is awaiting the results of a new study to determine the fleet's status. "In December 2004, Lockheed Martin will finish a report on full-scale fatigue-testing conducted between 2001 and 2003," the navy tells Flight International. "The navy will use these results to re-baseline the S-3 [fatigue life expectancy]."


Meanwhile, company and service officials say Bulgarian military officials have approached the navy for a briefing on a possible foreign military sale of the surplus aircraft. Bulgaria is considering the S-3B fleet as a potential strike platform for the Black Sea region.


Although Bulgaria has emerged as a possible customer for the surplus aircraft, interest has dwindled elsewhere since the navy signalled its intention to retire the S-3B fleet two years ago. Venezuela was considered a leading sales prospect, but has dropped out due to the country's ongoing political turmoil.



Source: Flight International