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Navy Replacing EP-3 Aries With Drones

by John Reed on August 16, 2011

So the Navy is going to replace its small fleet of EP-3 Aries signals intelligence aircraft with a “family” of $8 billion worth of drones by 2020. This is important because it marks the first time that one of the bigger intel birds is being replaced by UAVs — a concept that’s been talked about for a while.

From Flight Global:

The US Navy has confirmed plans to retire the special mission versions of the Lockheed P-3 by 2020, and replace them with an all-unmanned fleet.

The decision comes as a blow to contractors who had been hoping to extend the service life of the fleet beyond 2020, or introduce new manned aircraft as replacements.

In written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, incoming chief of naval operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the navy’s ageing EP-3 Aries and special projects aircraft will be retired in 2019 and 2020.

They will be replaced by an $8 billion investment over the next five years in a family of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, Greenert said.

Those investments include $1.1 billion in the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, $3.9 billion in the Northrop RQ-4N broad area maritime surveillance aircraft, $2.5 billion in the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike programme and $1.1 billion in the medium-range maritime unmanned aircraft system.

The EP-3 carries a 24-man crew and a host of sensors designed to vacuum up enemy communications and sensor signals. Remember when one was forced to make an emergency landing in China a decade ago?

Boeing was hoping to produce a variant of its 737-based P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol jet as a replacement for the EP-3 in the same way the P-8 is replacing the P-3 Orion. Back to the drawing board, fellas.

This is also significant because the Air Force is conducting an analysis of alternatives for how it will continue to perform the ground scanning radar mission performed by the fleet of E-8 Joint STARS radar jets made from modified Boeing 707s. The Chicago-based Boeing had hoped to pitch a 737-based plane similar to the P-8 to replace the J-STARS. The Air Force is already eyeing UAVs as one possible way to continue the JSTARS mission. The question now is; if the Navy moves ahead with its effort to replace the EP-3 with a drone, could it push the Air Force toward doing the same with the JSTARS? We’ll see. Yes, the EP-3 and E-8 perform different missions but they’re both large, old and manned intel planes.

Here’s the rest of the Flight article.

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