February 2, 2009: The U.S. Navy is replacing the elderly S-3 anti-submarine aircraft on its carriers, with more helicopters. Until recently, a carrier had one squadron of MH-60 helicopters. Now it will carry two (initially, 19 choppers, instead of 12). Formerly, the MH-60 was used mainly for moving people and supplies around, as well as search and rescue. But now, the MH-60s will be equipped for anti-submarine, attack (against land or naval targets) and special operations (including anti-piracy duties.)
Three years ago, the navy hoped to take advantage of new, lightweight, search radars and targeting pods and began equipping S-3 aircraft with Lantirn targeting pods. The S-3 was originally designed as an anti-submarine aircraft, and served in that capacity from its introduction in the mid 1970s, to the late 1990s. The end of the Cold War ended most of the submarine threat, and since 1999, the S-3 has served as a patrol aircraft, and aerial tanker. But it was hoped that a reequipped S-3, with the long range (ten hours per sortie), day/night video capability of the Lantirn, and lightweight search radar, would make it a much more effective maritime patrol aircraft. The Lantirn pod costs two million dollars, and is hung off a hard point like a bomb or fuel tank.
The search radar, that can spot ships fifty or more kilometers away, enable an S-3 to quickly scan a huge chunk of ocean in a few hours. But the key element here is the targeting pod, which eliminates the need to fly down low to visually confirm what the ship (that is easily spotted by the radar) is. With the targeting pod, you can stay high (20,000 feet) and far away (over twenty kilometers) and still get a close look. The S-3 can also carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in case the ship below is hostile.
The S-3's advantage is that it can operate from an aircraft carrier, enabling a carrier to quickly establish a detailed picture of what ships are moving in the vicinity (meaning anything several hundred kilometers from the carrier). While the upgraded S-3s proved effective, the aircraft themselves are too old to keep it up, and there is no money to by new ones, or a replacement. In the next decade, the S-3 will be retired, and replaced (for patrol and taker duties) by F-18F aircraft. The space that the S-3 took on board, will be devoted to more MH-60s.