South Korea has finally received the eight American P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft it ordered several years ago. There was an 18 month delay in receiving the upgraded American P-3Cs, caused by the reluctance of the United States to allow the export of a key electronic warfare component (that detects and classifies radar signals). The U.S. believed that this item might be stolen (by China, and a number of other usual suspects), and thus degrade the effectiveness of the technology. The South Koreans eventually assured the United States that the secrets would remain secure. South Korea now has 24 P-3s in service.
Despite the cutting edge electronics, the American built P-3C airframe is getting old. The average age of the U.S. P-3Cs is 28 years. The P-3 entered service in 1962. The current version 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 P-3 is based on the 1950s era Lockheed Electra airliner. The last P-3 was built in 1990. A more likely replacement for these elderly search planes, are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), like Global Hawk or smaller aircraft like Predator and Reaper. 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."
A fully equipped, for maritime patrol, Reaper costs over $20 million each. Such a reaper can spot ships below night and day, and has cameras that can zoom in on any ship or speedboat for a detailed video close up. A P-3 aircraft can only stay in the air for half as long as a Reaper, but carries more sensors and weapons. A P-3 also requires a larger ground crew, and more maintenance after each flight.
Nevertheless, the demand for Reapers in Afghanistan, and the skill and experience of the P-3 crews, makes the P-3 the most effective, and available, maritime recon aircraft for just any kind of reconnaissance. In the event of a war in Korea, the P-3s would be essential for patrolling coastal waters, and even land areas. In the meantime, South Korea wants more P-3s to keep track of the growing number of Chinese subs in the area.