Follow-Up: Rear Adm. Michael L. Holmes on The USA’s P-3C Force
The P-3C fulfills a unique role in the U.S. force structure; not only does it act as a sub-hunter and keep tabs on the sea lanes via long-range reconnaissance, it’s also finding itself in demand from Kosovo to Afghanistan for use in overland surveillance and attack roles. Yet the age of its airframes – often older than the pilots who fly them – is taking its toll. The USA is struggling to sustain a shrinking and aging aircraft fleet until the P-8As begin to arrive around 2011-2013, and/or to-be-selected BAMS UAV platforms can take on some of the Orions’ missions.
Now the August 2005 issue of Sea Power Magazine interviews Rear Adm. Michael L. Holmes, who is responsible to the commander, Naval Air Forces, for manning, training and equipping the MPR (Maritime Patrol & Reconnaissance) force of 17 patrol, special projects patrol and fleet air reconnaissance squadrons. His comments regarding P-3C force levels, initiatives, challenges and future MPR plans add important background to our stories. Background that includes:
- The average age of the P-3 force is 27 years, and some are 40 years old. There are serious fatigue issues with the airframe. But the USA is going to have to fly the P-3 for another 12-15 years.
- The EP-3s electronic reconnaissance aircraft are in better shape than the P-3 fleet generally, because they operate at higher altitudes and so suffer less from salt etc.
- In Sept. 2003 there were 227 P-3Cs in the U.S. Navy inventory, but 50 were retired after an assessment and the rest required structural modifications. Counting the airplanes going through structural modifications and the ones in phased depot maintenance, fully 46% of the US inventory (around 80 planes) are in some kind of deep maintenance.
- At one time, the USA would deploy 8 P-3 squadrons, for a total of 72 P-3s at any given time. That’s now down to three deployment sites [Sigonella, Italy; Bahrain; and Misawa, Japan] and a total of 24 planes. While they fly daily over Iraq as well as Afghanistan, they can meet only the combatant commanders’ most immediate and pressing needs.
- Increased use of very advanced training simulators instead of live flying hours is one way the force is trying to minimize further wear on the aircraft.
- Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) proficiency is suffering a little bit as a result of these priorities and the environments they’re in, but they’re working hard to keep that up and engaging in a lot of training exercises with various diesel subs from friendly countries.
- A combination of active sensors with new modes, GPS-aware sonobuoys, and torpedoes that can be dropped from high altitude are all envisioned as part of the emerging fast-response capability to counter the diesel sub threat in littoral waters. These options are part of overall doctrinal changes in the US in this area.
- The majority of the Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance work being done with the P-3 and the EP-3 will probably fall to the forthcoming BAMS UAV. But anti-submarine warfare requires manned aircraft and will continue to do so.
For the full report on each of these issues and more, read the whole interview.
Dec 17/07: US NAVAIR issues an Air Frame Bulletin announcing the grounding of 39 P-3C Orion aircraft, which have been discovered to be “beyond known structural limits on the lower section of the P-3 wing.” Analysis and corrective measures are expected to take between 18 – 24 months per aircraft to complete.
The US Navy has a total of 161 P-3C aircraft in its inventory by this time, and 10 of the 39 grounded aircraft are currently deployed on operations. The grounded aircraft will either return to safe operation after replacement of critical structural components or will be removed from service. Fortunately for the US Navy, Lockheed Martin has re-opened a plant to produce new P-3 wings.