Replacement for EP-3C Aries III hits funding problems, prompting collaboration calls

Faced with a sizeable budget shortfall and struggling to fund development of the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), the US Navy is eyeing collaboration with the US Army's Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) programme to find a replacement for its Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries III electronic intelligence (ELINT) platforms.

A recent meeting of the USN's senior naval leadership has directed planners to look at joining ACS as one possible alternative to developing a separate surveillance intelligence variant of the proposed MMA. Two teams, led by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are competing for ACS, proposing the Gulfstream G550 and Embraer EMB-145 respectively.

The navy's P-3 fleet has been heavily used in littoral and overland operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other options under consideration include a further life extension of the current EP-3C or acquiring a "light" version of the US Air Force's Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint system

The USN remains determined to push ahead with plans to acquire 150 maritime patrol versions of MMA to replace the P-3C, despite a mounting shortfall in procurement funding that will reach nearly $8 billion by 2009. The USN has budgeted around $2.5 billion for development and, depending on the system selected, production costs could total $24 billion, fuelling industry speculation the programme will either be curtailed or delayed.

Boeing is studying a new-build version of the 737-800 for MMA and Lockheed Martin a range of different P-3 options ranging from new-build Orion 21s to "focused production" equipping the current fleet with new wings and fuselage. New Zealand has re-winged its P-3Ks, while Canada and South Korea are considering similar upgrades of their CP-140s and P-3Bs.

Source: Flight International