MMA RFP Released as Airframe Fatigue and Money Problems Collide

K.B. Sherman, 2004

Following years of preparation and a number of false starts and requirement changes, on 28 October NAVAIR’s Maritime Surveillance Aircraft Program Office (PMA 290) released a request for proposal for the P-3C replacement – the Multimission Maritime Aircraft. MMA was to have replaced not only the P-3C but the EP-3E as well, until a recent change in the program eliminated the SIGINT variant, as discussed below. Prior to the RFP release, the Performance Based Specification was signed on 30 September by the NAVAIR MMA Program Manager, CAPT Steve Eastburg.

Nominally closing-out the era of P-3C upgrades, the last of ten Block Modification Upgrade Program (BMUP) P-3C aircraft were delivered to NAVAIR's Maritime Aircraft Program (PMA 290) block modification upgrade program in July, concluding the last extensive non-recurring engineering effort, begun in 1997. The P-3C BMUP program -- an effort to standardize the Navy's P-3C force into a common configuration with updated display and control technology-- is at least the tenth upgrade of the P-3 since the P-3A baseline aircraft joined the fleet in 1962, equipped with one AQA-3 sonobouy receiver and the ASA-16 tactical display, both lifted from the SP-2H “Neptune,” the P-2V having first flown during World War II.

The P-3C BMUP brings Update II and Update II.5 P-3 aircraft in line with current Update III performance parameters – the most advanced P-3C configuration in the US fleet. Lockheed Martin Aircraft Corporation (Greenville, SC) completed the functional installation verification aircraft and the test kit installation aircraft modifications, while L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (Greenville, TX) completed the follow-on installations. P-3C Update III (BMUP) was awarded by NAVAIRSYSCOM to Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems in July 1998 with the goal of procuring up to 25 modification kits for installation in P-3C Update II and Update II.5 aircraft.

The “B-kits” include a significantly improved data processing system with color high-resolution displays at each operator station, the AN/USQ-78B acoustic system with an improved acoustic receiver and acoustic data recorder, MK-50 torpedo and Harpoon weapon system upgrades, a data processing subsystem based on the CP-2451/ASQ-227 digital computer, and the AN/ALR-66B(V)3 ESM system. AN/USQ-78A and AN/USQ-78B Display Control Units (DCUs) operate as integral components of the aircraft's Single Advanced Signal Processor (SASP). The system is responsible for command and control of the signal processors, drives the displays and controls for two sensor stations, provides acoustic contacts to the Tactical Sub-system, and communicates with other acoustics subsystems. The AN/ALR-66A/B(V)3 Electronic Support Measures [ESM] Set provides concurrent radar warning receiver data (threat data) along with ESM data (fine measurement of classical parametric data). The AN/ALR-66B(V)3 Set provides increased sensitivity and processing improvements over its predecessor, the AN/ALR-66A(V)3. BMUP follows the already concluded P-3C Anti-Surface Warfare Improvement Program (AIP).

Joan Holland of NAVAIR PMA-290 said that this last block of 10 aircraft resulted in 25 total BMUPs, bringing the total Update III inventory to 165 aircraft. The BMUP effort total cost was just under $200M.

BMUP is the latest just-in-time stopgap, considering that the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft Program is running into increasing friction; the P-3C is likely to be flying even past its most recent official projected retirement date of 2015, with operations into 2019 now foreseen and duty beyond that possible. If so, further upgrades cannot be ruled out. By 2010, the P-3 will be 51 years old and being flown by the grandchildren of the people who designed it. While the P-3 airframe was estimated to have a life of 10,000 flying hours, many have now flown more than 20,000, and the wear is becoming critical as “surge tasking” sends P-3s to the ends of the world in support of the US’ fight against terrorism. To make matters more hinky, there is just one MPA pot of money: the longer a P-3 stays in service and requires continuing maintenance, the less money the Navy has with which to buy its replacement, the MMA. In fact, as we went to press, Navy Times reported that the Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft Office is considering retiring as many as 138 older P-3s for just that budgeting purpose. Tasking will be the key.

There were to have been 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. Two hundred and fifty one MMA aircraft were originally envisioned, with the first squadron to have been operational by 2014. The latest estimate is for the first MMA to come on line in 2013 and to have completely replaced the P-3 by 2019. Numbers have changed along with the Navy’s ever increasing role in the war on terrorism tied to its relatively unchanged budget. The MMA variant to have replaced the EP-3E was scrubbed recently, with that requirement tentatively being moved to smaller aircraft similar to the US Army’s Guardrail follow-on, and indeed, the SIGINT function now performed by the EP-3E will now be transitioned to a similar new Navy airplane or even performed by US Army aircraft. The MMA analysis also includes the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle concept as part of the MPA solution for the 21st century.

Redefining the urgency of the MMA Program, the Navy recently set a schedule for decommissioning all seven Reserve P-3 squadrons (with their 56 or so P-3s) by 2006, although the Navy still has not publicly confirmed this. The Navy’s latest plans are said to include only 108 MMAs and 50 BAMS UAVs to replace the P-3Cs, according to Peter Simmons, Communications Manager for Lockheed Martin’s Air Mobility Programs. The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV has not yet been chosen, but Simmons describes Lockheed’s likely offering as based upon the Predator B-ER variant, called the Mariner. Having abandoned the idea of a SIGINT MMA is too costly, the Navy is expected to join the Army's Aerial Common Sensor program as early as next year, and Lockheed’s Simmons said that the Navy plans to procure 20-25 ACS-N aircraft to replace the EP-3E fleet, while NAVAIR’s Holland puts the latest estimate at 14 - 19. Lockheed Martin's ACS-type aircraft proposal includes the Embraer 145 jet; Northrop Grumman's proposal includes the Gulfstream G450.

Other parties also await the outcome of the MMA Program. Italy and Germany are reported to be delaying replacement of their Atlantique aircraft until the US Navy decides which MMA proposal to accept, and in fact Germany recently indicated interest in buying Holland’s P-3C fleet when and if the Dutch military gets out of the P-3 business (see other articles on this site).

The two MMA contenders left standing at this point in the game are a variant of the Boeing 737-800 and the Lockheed Martin Orion21, a refurbed and updated P-3. The Component Advanced Development Industry Phase II began in February of this year, during which search-and-attack concepts based on the results of CAD Phase I were developed. The CAD Phase II process is to last until next spring, with Milestone B, final source selection, and contract award occurring in the beginning of 2005. The program plans to select a concept based upon the competitive CAD work effort. MMA will initiate the development phase after the planned Milestone B (MS B) Decision Review in March 2004.

Boeing has taken its multimission maritime concept aircraft on the road to generate support from the US Navy for what could be a $ 2 billion + contract to replace the P-3C. Lockheed’s proposal, the Orion 21, has not yet been unveiled, although it may prove to be a reworked P-7, a P-3 replacement scrubbed by the Navy in 1990 after falling behind in development and upon the collapse of the USSR’s huge submarine fleet.

According to Boeing’s Ellen Lemond-Holman, for several weeks in November, Boeing ferried a stripped MMA 737-800 Mod around to let Navy crews try it out. The demos allowed naval aviators feel how the airplane performs in typical maritime patrol and ASW configurations, on one engine, and handling with hydraulic boost out. Other performance demonstrations involved 2,200 FPM rate of ascent, cruise at 41,000 feet (versus the P-3’s service ceiling of about 29,000 feet), and a simulated engine-out at low altitude followed by a single-engine climb back to altitude. Low altitude lost-engine performance of a two-engine aircraft is particularly important in patrol aviation.

Boeing also released several pictures taken from the 737. They show the aircraft circling several ships in a shallow angle of bank at an estimated altitude of 700 feet MSL. Not described in Boeing’s brief as having been demonstrated are two typical MPA scenarios: “rigging” (repeatedly circling a ship for photos and identification) at below 500 feet MSL and at angles of bank up to 45 degrees, and performing a “MAD trap,” which involves flying in a 2-G, 60 degree angle of bank just 200 feet off the water while tracking a sub to develop attack criteria using the aircraft’s magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). Meanwhile, Boeing was signing an agreement with four other aerospace companies to form the Boeing Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) industry team. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (St. Louis, MO) and partners CFM International (Cincinnati, OH), Northrop Grumman (Los Angeles, CA), Raytheon Aerospace (Madison, MS), and Smiths Aerospace (London, England) have partnered to win the MMA prime contractor selection in early 2004.

Smiths Aerospace will supply both the Flight Management and Search/Weapons Stores Management systems on the Boeing 737 MMA. CFM International, a 50/50 joint company of General Electric USA, and Snecma, France, provides the CFM56 military engines that power the Boeing 737 MMA. Northrop Grumman's Baltimore-based Electronic Systems sector will provide the electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, the directional infrared countermeasures system, and the electronic support measures system. Northrop Grumman's Information Technology sector (Herndon, VA) will develop data links for MMA. According to Raytheon’s Ron Colman, that company will provide the APS-137 Maritime Surveillance Radar, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) systems, a GPS Anti-Jam System, IFF, a Towed Decoy System with a combination of retrievable and expendable decoys to operate with the Northrop Grumman Early Warning and Self-Protection subsystem, and the Broadcast Info System (BIS) and UHF Satcom systems. “The team is already in place,” said Boeing’s Lemond-Holman. Lockheed Martin, Boeing’s competitor, declined to comment about its MMA effort or respond to Boeing’s MMA Industry Team announcement.

The wild card remains money. With funds short and getting shorter, if the war on terrorism gets hotter, there may be no MMA at all. In that case, Lockheed would be in a good position to be chosen to keep the Navy’s P-3s flying. Perhaps, like the B-52, the P-3 will find itself flying into the mid-21st century.

Proposals from Boeing and Lockheed were due by 29 December.

After the exquisite churning that has occurred in developing the MMA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been asked to reply to the RFP (pic of Boeing concept).