Washington says aircraft could go out to India if deal is not complete by year-end

South Korea has been told to complete its proposed purchase of eight ex-US Navy Lockheed Martin P-3B Orions by the year-end or risk losing them to India.

Industry sources say the US government has refused to extend its offer to South Korea, which first requested the aircraft three years ago. The programme has been delayed by budget constraints, but Seoul has earmarked funds to kick-start the project in 2004. It plans to select a vendor early next year to upgrade the aircraft. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and L-3 Communications are competing against Korean Air Aerospace and Lockheed Martin for the contract.

Interest in surplus Orions is intensifying in Asia, with maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) requirements in India, Pakistan, Taiwan and Thailand. KAI and L-3 are proposing to meet Thailand's need for three or four refurbished Orions as part of a strategic marketing alliance signed earlier this year to pursue projects across Asia. India needs up to 30 aircraft while Pakistan and Taiwan are evaluating MPA alternatives.

"We're in a tremendous search mode with KAI for other opportunities," says L-3 Integrated Systems president Robert Drewes.

L-3 is the prime contractor in the Australian P-3C upgrade programme and is pitching to upgrade six P-3Ks for New Zealand, where it competes with EADS Casa and Lockheed Martin. A contract is due to be awarded in early 2004.

The Indian, South Korean and Thai programmes involve reactivating Orions stored in the USA, refurbishing the airframe, engines and landing gear to support an extended service life, and installing a new mission system. L-3 plans to upgrade the first two aircraft in the USA before transferring work to KAI, which would modify all additional aircraft and help L-3 develop a new data management system.

There should be no shortage of Orions available for Asian operators as fatigue problems are forcing the USN to accelerate the retirement of its fleet (Flight International, 25 November-1 December). But South Korea is keen on the eight P-3Bs on offer, which have slightly heavier airframes than its eight P-3Cs.

Source: Flight International