Naval Air: Old Reliable Getting Replaced by Robots


March 6, 2007: Norway is spending $16 million each to upgrade its six P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. This will enable the P-3Cs to each fly another 15,000 hours, or 20-25 more years in service. Despite several efforts to produce a new maritime reconnaissance aircraft, many nations are sticking with their elderly P-3 aircraft. There are still over 400 P-3 Orions in service around the world. Seventeen nations are users, and many expect to be using their P-3s for another twenty years. About a quarter of the current active P-3s will be rebuilt, and this work, plus many other upgrades, will bring cost over a billion dollars.

The U.S. Navy is still using 140 P-3s, which is pretty impressive for an aircraft that entered service in 1962. The current version (the P-3C) has a cruise speed of 610 kilometers per hour, endurance of up to 13 hours and a crew of eleven. The 116 foot long, propeller driven aircraft has a wingspan of nearly 100 feet. The P-3C can carry about ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, or missiles like Harpoon and Maverick).

The 63 ton aircraft is based on the 1950s era Lockheed Electra airliner. The last P-3 was built in 1990. The most likely replacement for these elderly search planes, are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), like Global Hawk or smaller aircraft like Predator. These UAVs typically stay in the air for 24 hours, or more, at a time. What maritime reconnaissance aircraft need, more than anything else, is endurance or, as the professionals like to put it, "persistence."




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