By Naval History and Heritage Command
Initially designed as a Cold War eye-in-the sky against submarines, the P-3C Orion eventually evolved into becoming one of the most versatile aircraft in the military’s arsenal for battlefield surveillance.
But after more than 50 years of service, the Lockheed Martin P-3C is making room for the newest, and most technologically advanced aircraft of its type, the Boeing P-8A, which makes its operational debut today when the first Sailors of VP-16 arrive on station at Kadena Air Base Okinawa for the first deployment of the Poseidon. The P-8A will eventually replace the venerable Orion by the end of this decade.
It is an aircraft of ironies, the P-3. Built to hunt down submarines amid the depths of the ocean’s mountain ranges, it has most recently provided the means to hunt down terrorists hidden within the arid, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.
Although capable of speeds up to 473 knots, it was the P-3C’s ability to cruise slowly just above rocket-launched missile range that gave the aircraft an edge in low-altitude surveillance. With a team of special ops forces on board, they could communicate real-time intelligence back to troops on the ground for the most-effective ambushes.
Unmanned vehicles, like the Air Force’s Predator, have gotten a lot of attention, but for certain missions, having human eyes look over that next hill was invaluable for those fighting an unconventional war.
Like the Boeing 737-based P-8A, the P-3 traces its roots to a commercial airline, the Electra, built by Lockheed in the 1950s during the Cold War. Known as Orion, with its distinctive Magnetic Anomaly Detection boom extending the fuselage behind the tail of the aircraft, the P-3 joined the Navy’s patrol aircraft inventory with a range of 5,600 miles. Far from sight of land, skimming over rough seas, a 10-man crew concentrates on instrument panels, scopes and detection devices as the Orion flies an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) search pattern. It is powered by four constant-speed turboprop engines. For sea-level ASW work, two engines may be shut down to achieve increased time on station.
The aircraft boasts 250 percent more floor space than found in earlier patrol planes, along with pressurized cabins, air conditioning, electrically-heated floor panels and stand-up, walk-around space to enhance the work environment. Polarized lighting reduces eye strain.
A tactical coordinator, along with sensor operators, monitors the plane’s sophisticated electronic detection gear, including sonobuoys, radar and electronic countermeasure equipment. Navigation and position location are assisted by inertial and Doppler navigation systems, as well as tactical navigation devices used in the submarine contact area.
Armament includes torpedoes, depth charges, bombs and rockets that are carried in the bomb bay or on underwing pylons.
Most of the P-3’s cold war work was done behind the scenes with little fanfare. However, it was used during the blockade of Cuba for anti-submarine surveillance and maritime patrol during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Cold War ended, the Orion was used for land during operations in 1991’s first Gulf War.
The Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW) Improvement Program, which was part of the aircrafts’ Update III in 1998, expanded the Orion’s capabilities to include long missions over land, such as Over-the-Horizon surveillance and targeting, maritime patrol, carrier battle group support, interdiction operations, and littoral warfare. It’s low-light level TV permits visual observation, at dusk and in starlight, of surface targets previously undetected by the human eye. Electro-optic sensors provide near real-time connectivity of surveillance/reconnaissance data with battle group and national command decision makers.
That upgrade proved invaluable during the March 2002, 20-day Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, where hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters were assembling at Shah-e-Kot. As the insurgents kept radio silence, the Orions were able to detect and then alert American and Allied forces of Al Qaeda’s movements. And throughout the 12-year war thus far, the P-3C Orion has continued to bring that technology to the fight, despite an upsurge of interest in unmanned aerial vehicles.
But with this initial addition of P-8As to the fleet, don’t plan on saying goodbye to the P-3C just yet. As the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force transitions into a new type/model/series for the first time in more than 50 years, mid-life upgrades to bump up its technology will ensure the remaining P-3C Orions remain in the fight until the P-8A Poseidon achieves full operational capability in 2019.