But overseas players EADS and BAE Systems are ruled out of prime contractor status, leaving them seeking partnerships with prospective domestic bidders

The US Navy wants to kick-start the Multi-mission Maritime Patrol aircraft (MMA) programme as soon as possible by issuing industry with a request for proposals (RFP) before an analysis of alternatives (AoA) is completed. The move is intended to avoid any further delay in replacing its 250 ageing Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion and EP-3E Aries IIs.

Although the USN's ongoing AoA is not scheduled to be completed before the end of this year, Naval Air Systems Command is seeking Department of Defense permission to make an immediate start on finding a manned P-3/EP-3 replacement. The Navy would like to award a one-year risk reduction contract by January to one or more bidders ahead of selecting a final contractor in April 2003 to begin full scale development.

This is predicated on winning MMA funding in the fiscal year 2004 budget, the submission cycle for which starts in the third quarter of 2001. "The urgency is that there is going to be significant erosion in the number of P-3/EP-3s by the end of the decade. Every year we lose puts a strain on our remaining inventory. We don't want to lose another year," says Cdr Al Easterling, MMA deputy programme manager.

Although the AoA covers a range of systems, including long-endurance unmanned air vehicles and space-based surveillance, there is a consensus emerging that a manned system will form a major part of MMA, claims the navy.

The navy specifies a derivative of an existing commercial or military aircraft - such as the Boeing 737 or Lockheed Martin Orion 21, and not a clean sheet design - that must be able to accommodate the same payload and equipment as today's P-3C, which could include a proportion of its avionics and sensor suite depending on funding.

The USN wants the first squadron to be operational by 2010-12, by which time more than 80 P-3/EP-3s will have been retired. Easterling adds: "We don't believe it is possible for anyone but a domestic to be prime contractors." This leaves BAE Systems and EADS looking for a US partner from the line-up of prospective local bidders comprising Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

Source: Flight International