Three contractors will help the US Navy develop plans to replace its Lockheed EP-3E Aries II fleet with an all-new aircraft and perhaps develop an expanded mission role.

The navy on 6 February awarded $1.25 million contracts to teams led by Boeing/Argon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman/L-3 Communications. Other known bidders, including EADS North America and Raytheon, did not receive contracts, but will not be excluded from a future competition.

"These contractors will help us determine the technical criteria necessary to build a strong foundation for the EPX programme," says Capt Joe Rixey, the USN's maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft programme manager.

Boeing EPX in flight
Boeing's proposed EPX is based on P-8A MMA       ©Boeing

Boeing has confirmed plans to offer an electronic intelligence version of its developmental 737-based P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and strike aircraft.

But the pending EPX competition has also drawn interest from other platform suppliers, including Airbus, Embraer and Gulfstream. The USN has previously called for a new fleet of 14-19 aircraft to replace its EP-3s.

The navy describes EPX as a "manned multi-mission, multi-intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting platform", co-ordinating with the still-undetermined Broad Area Maritime Surveillance unmanned air vehicle and the manned P-8A.

The three teams must deliver their study results within a year, with these to inform the USN's evolving acquisition strategy. A contract award is tentatively scheduled for fiscal year 2011.