November 14, 2012: Some American politicians are criticizing U.S. Navy leadership for planning to cut five of their 22 EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft over the next two years. These elderly airplanes are becoming more expensive to maintain, are being replaced by UAVs and, for the last decade, have mostly operated over land in support of army operations. With defense spending shrinking the navy is trying to save money anywhere it can. The navy believes that there are plenty of medium (Predator and Reaper) size UAVs out there to do what the EP-3s have been doing over land.
It was last year, after several years of debate, that the navy decided to replace its specialized versions of its P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft with UAVs and not a new manned aircraft. This will be done by the end of the decade. The most widely used P-3 “special” is the EP-3 signals (electronic) reconnaissance aircraft. It will be replaced by a special version of the RQ-4N Global Hawk and one, or more, smaller UAVs.
Until four years ago the plan was to adapt the new P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft as the EP-8. But then technological change intervened. Sensor and radar technology was, and is, changing so quickly that the U.S. Air Force and Navy were having a hard time designing a replacement. The Navy wanted to replace the EW (Electronic Warfare) version of its P-3 reconnaissance aircraft. The navy believed that sensors have become small enough, and cheap enough, that they could load up a Boeing 737 with radar, sensors, computers, mini-UAVs, and the people needed to run it all, and perform functions formerly taken care of by several different aircraft. This new Super Snooper was to be the EP-8. It was to use an AESA radar for scanning the sea (or land) below in great detail. Also to be used were dozens of antennas (built into the aircraft skin), for detecting any kind of nearby electronic emissions. The EP-8 would be used for a wider array of missions than its predecessor, the EP-3. In addition to the traditional trolling off the coast of, say, China, North Korea, or Iran to detect how the locals use their electronic devices (radars, communications, whatever), the EP-8 would also fly over combat zones seeking out cell phone, walkie-talkie, or other radio use and locating the people involved. The EP-8 would carry missiles, as well as small UAVs that can be used to test enemy air defenses (which can result in a missile to take out the hostile radar). All this turned out to be more expensive and complex than the navy could afford, especially when there were increasingly cheaper and effective UAV alternatives. Now all this is going to be done using UAVs.
Meanwhile, the Boeing 737 is still being used as the P-3 (maritime patrol and anti-submarine) replacement (the P-8As), which enters service next year. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet, compared to the four engine turboprop P-3, it is a more capable plane. The P-8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3 and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs spotted by sonar arrays or satellites.
However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons, versus 5.6). This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobouys) are pound-for-pound more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew, of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.
The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with bomb hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3, which was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built, plus 600 P-3s. Some are still in service as freighters. The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built. The P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and four wing racks for weapons.
The P-8A looks like it will be the last maritime reconnaissance aircraft with people aboard. In fact, there are a growing number of UAV proponents in the navy and air force who want the next generation of aircraft to be unmanned. But the UAV technology (particularly the reliability) is not quite there yet for the P-8 but will be soon. For that reason not as many P-8s may be built as the navy wants (117).