Several hundred million dollars allocated by service for refits on P-3C Orions

The US Navy has stabilized the future of the Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion submarine-hunting fleet with an injection of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds for structural upgrades.

A P-3 fleet of 228 aircraft two years ago has been reduced to around 170 today and will continue declining to about 130 platforms by 2010. However, the fleet is no longer at risk of re-entering a crisis mode discovered about two years ago, says Capt Chris Easterling of the Naval Air Systems Command.

The USN initiated a study of the P-3 fleet's structural life in early 2003, believing the aircraft would go beyond its projected lifetime, says Easterling. However, the returned data indicated that the bulk of the fleet was at risk of immediately exceeding structural life thresholds. The navy had previously budgeted about $250,000 in structural life upgrades for its P-3s, but the discovery prompted Chief of Naval Operations Adm Vernon Clark to approve the launch of the replacement Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) and an effort to field the unmanned Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) fleet after 2008.

Boeing was awarded the MMA contract last year and will deliver the first squadron of modified 737s by 2013, while BAMS capability has been deferred by five years to 2013.

In the meantime, the USN has poured a huge investment into a major structural upgrade programme for the P-3 fleet. The lower forward spar cap on the outer wing is being replaced. An enhanced special structural inspection is examining outer-wing surfaces, with some aircraft receiving new outer wings, centre wingbox and horizontal stabiliser components. Phased maintenance at three new depots opened for the P-3 fleet will check for further defects.

Finally, a special modifications/installations package will be awarded soon to integrate new components, avionics, aircraft structures and other ground equipment. Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems & Sensors in mid-March received a $101 million contract to supply 122 USQ-78B acoustic system upgrade and retrofit kits and seven T-78 acoustic system trainers by 2011.

Easterling says the efforts should allow the P-3 fleet to phase out without major difficulty as the planned MMA fleet of 108 aircraft is delivered through to 2019. Boeing will launch a systems functional review of the MMA in early April, following the completion of high-speed windtunnel testing.

Australia, Canada and Japan have until September to decide whether to each invest $300 million to join the USN-led MMA project ahead of a preliminary design review which will freeze the aircraft's configuration and supplier base.


Source: Flight International