During its 35 years of service, the Viking proved itself so versatile that its mission was called simply “Sea Control.” Conceived primarily for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) against Soviet submarines with long range anti-shipping cruise missiles, the S-3A entered service in 1974, and received a number of upgrades over their lifetimes. Roles filled included anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, electronic reconnaissance and analysis, over-the-horizon targeting, surface surveillance, missile attack, and aerial refueling.
The USN’s Viking fleet was phased out in 2009, and their tanker and land attack missions were taken over by F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets. Fleet-borne anti-submarine capabilities now depend on slower and shorter-range helicopters like the MH-60R, despite global submarine proliferation and the growing range and lethality of submarine launched missiles. That brings the Vikings’ era to a close… or does it?
The US Navy’s Vikings
A total of 187 S-3As were built (8 test and 179 operational aircraft) between 1971 and 1978, and several S-3 variants were fielded.
The US-3A Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft, capable of carrying 4,250 pounds of cargo, fielded 7 aircraft from 1976 onward. It never replaced the C-2 Greyhound turboprops, but it did serve until the 1990s as a supplement. Lockheed Martin is about to try again in the 21st century with a modified C-3 version, whose big advantage would be the ability to carry an entire F-35 jet engine inside, without dis-assembly. Capacity would reportedly be 10,000 pounds of cargo or 28 passengers, with an advanced cargo handling system and loading ramp design taken from the C-130J Super Hercules. The C-3 would have a probe for mid-air refueling, and it would be able to carry buddy bods that would convert it to an aerial tanker.
Aerial refueling would turn out to be one of the jet’s most significant roles. Development of a KS-3A tanker variant began in 1979, and though it was never produced, it did prove the concept of “buddy tanking” (aerial refueling using a wing-mounted pod).
The significantly improved S-3B was developed in the early 1980s to counter quieter Soviet submarines, identify targets and carry standoff weapons. An S-3B prototype flew for the first time in September 1984, and served for almost 3 decades. It was often used as a buddy tanker within the carrier’s landing pattern, topping up fighters so they could remain aloft and land safely. The Navy removed the acoustic ASW and aerial mining systems in 1999 as part of the Cold War drawdown, but S-3s still served as surveillance, surface warfare, and aerial tanker platforms after that. At the height of combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, S-3 crews transferred nearly 8 million pounds of fuel to Coalition aircraft.
The 16 ES-3A Shadows were designed for fleet electronic surveillance, and the first mission capable Shadow flew in May 1991.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Viking fleet showcased some new capabilities. An S-3B from VS-38 carried out the first S-3 combat attack mission, disabling Saddam Hussein’s ocean-going yacht with a laser-guided AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile. Other S-3s added targeting pods and flew convoy overwatch, and an S-3B from VS-35 became the first aircraft to take on the Navy One call sign when it carried former President George W. Bush to the USS Abraham Lincoln [CVN-72]. In 2004, however, the Navy decided to save money by reducing the types of aircraft it operated. That decision spelled the eventual end of both the swing-wing, long-range F-14 Tomcat fighter and the S-3 Viking fleet. Front-line service concluded in 2007 with the aircraft’s last carrier deployment, and the aircraft was formally retired from service in January 2009.
Analysis of the S-3s shows that their average safe airframe life is a very high 23,000 flight hours, and organizational improvements have made a difference to the S-3’s projected availability and maintenance costs. Under the S-3 Integrated Maintenance Program (IMP) that ran from 2001-2007, Lockheed Martin and Navy personnel worked side-by-side to perform scheduled depot maintenance and repairs on the S-3s. The program began as a way to shrink the backlog at Naval Aviation depots, and IMP increased S-3 aircraft operational availability by 53%, while reducing maintenance tasking by 47% and lowering costs. A total of 149 aircraft were processed through the IMP inspections, and nearly all of the aircraft were redelivered to the Navy on or ahead of schedule.
Over its career, the Viking served with 18 Navy squadrons and accumulated approximately 1.7 million flight hours. Civilian variants of its GE TF34 engines are still employed on popular regional jets, and the aircraft itself remains well suited for its array of missions. New-build S-3s that added a MIL-STD-1760 databus, modern electronics, and updated wiring and networking, would be perfectly capable of continuing those missions for the USA and interested allies.
The last active American aircraft will be based at NASA Glenn Research Center near Cleveland, OH. These 4 S-3B Vikings performing aircraft icing research missions. Another 4 S-3Bs remain in Navy service to provide range surveillance at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in Point Mugu, CA.
USNI reports that of the 91 S-3Bs placed in storage, 87 could be restored to service, with an average of 9,000+ safe flight hours left on the airframes.
Contracts and Key Events
April 4/16: Lockheed Martin hopes to have South Korea’s purchase of the S-3 Viking approved in June. Seoul’s purchase of the maritime patrol and and submarine hunter is also acting as a barometer for other countries, including Vietnam, and two other nations. The comments were made by the company’s director of maritime patrol programs, Clay Fearnow at this year’s FIDAE 2016 expo in Chile. Renewed interest in the plane by South Korea, as a supplement to its order of P-9 aircraft, has given it a new lease on life since the 2009 divestment by the US Navy.
October 21/15: Lockheed Martin wants to resurrect the S-3B Viking anti-submarine warfare aircraft for the South Korean Navy. The company submitted a proposal detailing how a dozen former US-Navy S-3Bs could be refurbished – including a new, digital metalic anomaly detector and other ASW equipment – from stockpiles still maintained in long-term storage in Arizona. Lockheed Martin has floated the idea of reinvigorating S-3Bs before, pointing to the aircraft’s long endurance, sizeable payload and durability, as well as the 10-12,000 flight hours remaining on the S-3Bs currently in storage.
April 2014: Lockheed Martin will be pitching a C-3 Viking variant as the US Navy’s next Carrier On-board Delivery aircraft. There are 91 S-3s sitting in the AMARC “Boneyard,” and the 87 that could be restored to operational status have an average of 9,000 safe flight hours of life left on them.
The Navy’s big problem is transporting the F-35B/C’s F135 engine, so Lockheed Martin proposes to build brand new widened fuselages that could carry the entire engine intact, complete with modern avionics and an advanced cargo handling system/ loading ramp design taken from the C-130J Super Hercules. They’d reuse the retired S-3B fleet’s motors, wings, tail, control surfaces and other components in order to save costs. Cargo capacity would be 10,000 pounds with up to 28 people on board, at speeds that neither the V-22 nor an upgraded C-2 could match.
In addition, the S-3s would retain their ability to act as aerial tankers, using buddy refueling pods on the wings and taking advantage of their own long cruising endurance and refueling probes. The US Navy has been using F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in this role since the Vikings retired, and it’s currently eating 20% of the advanced fighters’ flight hours. In effect, they’ve been mortgaging their offensive future to create illusory cost savings in the present. A C-3 Viking would let the Navy stand some or all of the Super Hornets down from that role.
A new “C-2D” derived from the new E-2D Hawkeye airframe wouldn’t be able to solve this refueling problem. As for the V-22, it has been testing a refueling pallet, but its unpressurized internal hold has size limits that would force the F135 engine to be broken into modules, with some of them underslung for low-range carriage in good weather only. V-22s would offer commonality with the USMC, but they’re expensive at $70 million or so each, with very high operating and maintenance costs that have been the subject of alarming GAO reports. Perhaps reviving the 1980s idea of a modified US-3A isn’t so crazy after all.
Jan 30/09: One day after the disestablishment of its last squadron, Commander, Sea Control Wing, U.S. Atlantic Fleet followed suit with a ceremony above Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville. One of the speakers is Vice Adm. David Architzel, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition:
“In my career as a naval aviator, I’ve accumulated more than 5,000 flight hours. I’m proud to tell you that 4,300 of those hours were behind the stick of the S-3 Viking… Over more than 30 years, the versatility of the S-3 Viking was proven time and time again. There was never a time when the VP community and Lockheed could not reconfigure the Viking to successfully take on new missions.
Our legacy runs deep, going back to World War II when German submarine wolf packs were ravaging shipping lanes between the U.S. and Europe. The Navy responded with convoy carrier task forces that tasked Grumman Avengers to spot and target enemy submarines. Most recently, four Vikings from VS-22 were tasked to spot and target enemy IEDs [land mines], as well as performing surveillance of borders and infiltration routes in Iraq. With their adaptation of LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) pods, they were able to provide full-motion video to commanders on the ground.”
Jan 29/09: The US Atlantic fleet disbands its last S-3B squadron, VS-22.
Sept 27/07: Rockwell Collins Government Systems in Cedar Rapids, IA received $6.8 million for firm-fixed-price order #5078 under a previously awarded basic ordering agreement to purchase 170 AN/ARN-153 Receiver transmitters used on the US Navy’s S-3 Viking and EA-6B Prowler aircraft. Work will be performed in Cedar Rapids, IA, and is expected to be complete November 2008. This contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Inventory Control Point in Philadelphia, PA (N00383-06-G-002G).
Nov 3/06: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta, GA received an $8.9 million modification to a previously awarded firm-fixed-price indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. It exercises an option for engineering and logistics services in support of S-3B Viking carrier-borne aircraft. Services to be provided include in-service engineering, integrated logistics support, integrated maintenance program for aircraft depot-level scheduled maintenance, and material oversight. Work will be performed in Marietta, GA and is expected to be complete in September 2007. The Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD issued the contract (N00019-06-D-0002).
Dec 2/05: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta, GA received an $10.1 million modification to a previously awarded firm-fixed-price indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract. It exercises an option for engineering and logistics services in support of S-3B Viking carrier-borne aircraft, including inspection and maintenance of up to 23 S-3Bs.
Work will be performed in Jacksonville, FL and is expected to be complete in September 2006. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD (N00019-06-D-0002).
* US Navy Fact File – S-3B Viking detection and attack of submarines aircraft.
* Lockheed Martin – 100 Years: S-3 Viking.
* Global Security – S-3B Upgrades. There were several waves.
* AMARC Exprience – Lockheed S-3 Viking. AMARC, aka. “The Boneyard,” is where the S-3s are stored.
* Foxtrot Alpha (April 9/14) – Lockheed Wants To Bring The S-3 Viking Back From The Dead.
* USNI (April 1/14) – Lockheed Pitching Revamped Viking to Fill Carrier Cargo and Tanking Roles.