US Navy Plans for EP-3E Replacement Even as Manned Aircraft Era Ends


23 December 2008

In November, 2008, the US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command held an EP-X Industry Day to give contractors an update on its procurement plans regarding the replacement for the Navy EP-3E SIGINT aircraft. In December, the Navy will release a Broad Agency Announcement calling for specific requirements of a replacement aircraft, the EP-X. EP-X is to replace both the EP-3E SIGINT duties as well as add Multi-intelligence (Multi-INT) duties.

By spring of 2009 NAVAIR is expected to issue three, 13-month, $13M contracts to reduce the competing industry teams to two for competition in the technology demonstration phase. Selection of a final team is tentatively scheduled for 2012. Previously, three teams (Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin) had finished smaller concept-refinement contracts. Boeing is building the P-8A replacement for the P-3C and perhaps has a leg up at this point. A P-8 variant was initially considered to replace the EP-3E until the Army balked at using it for the Aerial Common Sensor replacement. The P-8 was originally proposed in two variants: the Search & Attack Version and the Surveillance & Intelligence Version. Whether the issue was really one of size or one of Army-Navy competition and turf-warring is open to conjecture.

Multi-INT duties are to involve networked ISR involving both manned and unmanned aircraft, satellites, ground stations and naval vessels. EP-X is to conduct manned ISR and targeting in conjunction with the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV that will also work in conjunction with the P-8A Poseidon ASW aircraft. However, the UAV and UCAV world has been in a constant state of uproar since the Army abandoned its proposed Embraer RJ-145 SIGINT airplane in 2006 after it was determined that the proposed new Aerial Common Sensor aircraft could not handle the job. Even before that decision was made, the Navy was balking at the use of the -145 to replace the EP-3E as the former was far smaller than the EP-3E and thus could not carry the crew and equipment the Navy insisted was necessary for the job. Similarly, possible aircraft from EADS and General Dynamics were judged too small.

If the reader thinks this saga is confusing, it is. Because in addition to the issues noted above, another major factor is the US military’s head-long rush to unmanned tactical and intel aircraft. As noted previously here at The Nav Log, the capability of UAV systems and aircraft doubles every 18-24 months – similar to that of personal computers. This, combined with a new administration openly hostile to military spending and a public that no longer accepts any losses of personnel in a war, is becoming an irresistible force in de-manning military platforms. The new Littoral Combat Ship is designed to be operated by just 40 people vs. over 300 for a WW II destroyer of the same size. The X-47 UCAV is about to be rolled-out for subsequent testing aboard Navy aircraft carriers and the RQ-8A Fire Scout VTUAV is now being deployed in the fleet. The BAMS UAV RQ-4B Maritime Hawk is in development and may be produced as a UCAV with weapons release capabilities. The Nav Log expects that, after the dust settles, the EP-X will be an unmanned aircraft employing the Multi-INT technology also under development. In what can only be considered an O’Henry twist, the last manned military aircraft are likely to be logistic, the plain, unsung airplanes that carry people and gear from Point A to Point B. Not very dashing, but somehow fitting.

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