US Navy’s Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft Program May Be In Trouble (NavLog exclusive)

© K.B. Sherman, 2003

Recent unexpected announcements by the US Navy and US Army are leading this reporter to believe that the Navy’s multi-billion dollar Multimission Maritime Aircraft program is undergoing last-minute revision, and may be in serious trouble. If the MMA program is abandoned or seriously curtailed, it would mean the end to the US Navy’s long-range airborne anti-submarine warfare capability. The Navy’s organic airborne SIGINT capability may also be given to the US Army or other services. The winner of the competition for the MMA Project could also expect to lose considerable revenue over the next ten years.

Several pieces if intelligence lead me to this conclusion:

1. The DOD has recently suggested its intention to transfer, over the next several decades, as much of its tactical aviation as feasible to unmanned aerial vehicles.

2. The Navy recently announced a two-month delay in the MMA program's Milestone B – originally scheduled for January 2004 and now scheduled for March 2004. The Navy had previously announced a December, 2003 date for its selection of a final vendor.

3. In line with Secretary Rumsfeld’s determination to essentially end the Reserves by folding many of their assets back into the active duty military, the Navy just announced that between now and 2007, all seven of its Reserve P-3C squadrons will be decommissioned, meaning the Navy will need far fewer maritime patrol aircraft. This will be the first time since before World War II that the US Navy has not had any Reserve aviation patrol squadrons.

4. It has just been revealed that the EP-3E’s SIGINT job may be turned-over to the US Army’s fleet of Guardrail/Aerial Common Sensor SIGINT aircraft, which are smaller, more easily deployed, and far less expensive to operate.

5. The US annual deficit for FY2004 is now estimated to be $450 billion, in large part due to the cost of fighting the war on terrorism.

The traditional ASW role for the P-3 has been essentially abandoned, what with the end of the Soviet Union’s fleet and with the workload being gobbled-up by world-wide operational commitments in support of low-intensity warfare. Commanders love the P-3s strengths, which include an unequalled combination of short field performance, organic maintenance capability, range, on-station time, attack capability, and SIGINT/C3I/EW capability. The ever-increasing operational portfolio of the maritime patrol aircraft was again showcased in May when an aircraft and crew from Patrol Squadron SIX NINE (NAS Whidbey Island, WA) teamed with US Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WHEC 724) to "bust" a "Go Fast" drug smuggling vessel. The speedboat was detected by the P-3C's AN/APS-137B(V)5 Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar. The crew maintained contact with the smuggler for more than eight hours, despite the smugglers persistent efforts to evade surveillance. The P-3 then coordinated the intercept of the drug runner with Munro. The joint effort enabled Munro's helicopter and crew to arrest five Colombian nationals and seize more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine. The boat's crew dumped an additional 4,000 pounds of cocaine before the intercept. The total street value of this interdiction is estimated to be $175 million. This success follows Operation Iraqi Freedom's location and tracking of an Iraqi patrol boat by a P-3C from Patrol Squadron FOUR SIX (NAS Whidbey Island, WA), assigned to Task Force FIVE SEVEN. The enemy vessel was subsequently destroyed by a USAF AC-130 gunship. The action took place off the southern Iraqi Al Faw Peninsula, approximately 295 miles southeast of Baghdad. This switch from ASW to C4I and ground support roles is an indicator of just how much the role of the “maritime patrol aircraft” has changed since the MMA program was announced.

The MMA project – ongoing now for several years – is officially to be the Navy’s answer to replacing the Lockheed Martin P-3C and EP-3E aircraft. Designed to last 30 years, the P-3, the –A version of which joined the fleet in 1962 -- is on its last legs mechanically, with the first P-3Cs having joined the fleet in 1969. Hard use and salt-water corrosion are brutal on aircraft. The older P-3Cs are already being retired. The EP-3Es are scheduled to begin being retired within the next two years.

There were to be two MMA variants: a Search and Attack (SA) aircraft to replace the P-3C and a Surveillance and Intel (SI) airplane to replace the EP-3E. Total dollar value was set at approximately $ 3 billion, although with total aircraft numbers having decreased to 150-200 SA and 20-25 SI aircraft. Two hundred and fifty one MMA aircraft were originally envisioned, with the first squadron operational by 2014.

Realistically, two competitors remain in the competition: Boeing, with a variant of the 737-700 BusinessJet, and Lockheed Martin, with a not-very-well defined turboprop aircraft that appears to be a variant of the P-7, abandoned by the Navy in the early 90s when the Soviet Union imploded and its huge fleet of nuclear subs was suddenly beached. At last look, it was revealed that part of the MMA solution would include a manned MMA aircraft, plus an acknowledged potential for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAVs to play a part in that system, although nothing more definitive had been decided.

Aviation Week and Space Technology has just published an article in which it reported that the Navy may join the Army in its SIGINT aircraft assets. Pentagon and national agency representatives are reportedly completing a study of a classified report on the need for improved collection and if the services can coordinate development of new SIGINT aircraft. Clearly, the large MMA would be unsuitable for such purposes. Top echelons in the Pentagon and intelligence community are discussing the Transformation Space Air Project (TSAP), a wide-ranging review of intelligence needs. TSAP is supposed to help determine the optimum balance between intelligence satellites and aircraft, according to Aviation Week. The review coincides with discussions at the Pentagon about having the Navy join the Army's next-generation airborne SIGINT program, the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS), which is slated to replace the service's fleet of RC-12 Guardrails and RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance Lows. According to Aviation Week, the Navy has dropped plans for its P-3 replacement, the Multimission Maritime Aircraft, to take on the EP-3's role, “…although MMA is still expected to replace other special-mission P-3s, including the aircraft flown by the VPU-1 and VPU-2 squadrons that operate with long-range electro-optical cameras, infrared sensors, chemical detectors, power measurement devices and other sensors that can detect, record and analyze emissions across a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum…” No mention of ASW aircraft capability is made. All this is reportedly in line with “… a growing interest at senior levels of the Pentagon to see the services cooperate more closely on intelligence systems...” Industry officials indicated the Navy is getting ready to become a partner on ACS, although no such announcement has been made by DOD. Under such an agreement, the Navy would pitch-in in developing an up-to-date mission equipment package and then re-host it on a platform that better suits its requirements, though what this aircraft would be in place of the MMA is unknown. The Navy has reportedly changed its requirement from a large aircraft capable of carrying 20-30 aircrew, instead indicating a willingness to have as few as 8-10 personnel. Independently, the Army is moving ahead with ACS, which could force a Navy decision in the relatively near future. Two Navy candidates for the new SIGINT platform are said to be the Embaer EMB/ERJ145 regional jet and the Gulfstream G550.

The Army has scheduled the ACS to be fielded in 2009, with one additional purchase every other year until 2017.

The Navy’s apparent abandonment of long-range air ASW assets at the same time that fourth-generation diesel-electric submarines are being bought by many countries hostile to the US is another issue – one that cannot be ignored. Just several of these subs could foil or seriously impede a littoral combat situation for US forces at some overseas hot spot. Further details on the MMA Program will be published in The NavLog as they occur.

Will the EBR-145 take the place of the SIGINT variant of the Navy's planned Multimission Maritime Aircraft?