VP + VQ + VPU = VPR?

By Lieutenant Robert McCord, USN

As a maritime patrol asset, the P-3 Orion flies missions over bluewater and in the littorals. In its ASW role, a P-3 will drop mines, torpedoes, and sonobuoys at very low altitudes just above the surface of the sea to ensure precise targeting; the turboprop P-3 always has done well at this type of mission. Along with its tight turning radius and long range, its low-altitude capability has made it the workhorse of maritime patrol and ASW for many years.

Today, the P-3 ASUW Improvement Program (AIP) has added to the aircraft's warfare potential considerably. The maritime patrol community has been able to integrate an upgraded optics and electronic support measures capability along with improved data-link access, Surface Land-Attack Missiles (SLAMs), and Maverick missiles into a single configuration. The Sustained Readiness Program, which extends the aircraft's service life, will keep these capable aircraft in the air until 2015.

The Joint Factor

  • Story Maker—onboard sensor fusion
  • Story Teller—
  • communications/data link upgrades
  • Story Book—special collection (pro forma) upgrades
  • Story Finder—electronic support measures
  • Story Classic—special signals
  • Story Scanner—optics collection and processing

If an aircraft could be selected or designed to meet the Navy's diverse needs, should the Department of Defense be considering other services' needs with regard to a Multimission Aircraft? Do the Air Force, Army, or Marine Corps require a similar aircraft? Should this project be validated by the Joint Requirements Operating Committee as a joint capability? For example, with regard to signals intelligence platforms, it might make sense to provide a common collection platform for all the services. The Air Force's RC-135 is due for replacement around the same time as the EP-3. Along with the Air Force's high-fliers and the Army's Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL), the RC-135 and EP-3 already have made great strides toward commonality under the Joint Signals-Intelligence Avionics Family (JSAF) program managed by the Joint Airborne Signals Intelligence Program Office. This multiservice, cooperative effort, originally sponsored by the Defense Air Reconnaissance Office (DARO)—now reorganized—has provided the research and development funds and the leadership necessary to design two independent, major sensor subsystems incorporating collectively the requirements of all four platforms. The high-band subsystem and low-band subsystem packages will provide the majority of avionics equipment necessary for all of these aircraft to perform the signals intelligence mission using common sensor suites. The Program Office has developed the infrastructure and architectural framework to host modular, open systems that are interoperable—a foundation that will allow a multimission approach to the MMA.

The EP-3 upgrade, designated J-MOD (for JSAF-modification), includes the low-band (and potentially the high-band) subsystem plus infrastructure improvements and upgrades to the Story-series subsystems:
Excluding the high-fliers from consideration, should these platforms go to a common airframe as well? Would a common airframe benefit Army Guardrail, the Coast Guard Security units, or the Marine Corps? The EP-3 community swings like a pendulum from a close relationship with the VP hierarchy to the realm of joint reconnaissance. On the other hand, it might linger somewhere in between—filling a void that neither VP nor the Air Force can fill today.

—R. McCord

The EP-3 performs a variety of missions ranging from electronic warfare and intelligence collection to general maritime and littoral reconnaissance. Unlike the P-3, the EP-3 has service counterparts in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army. Its closest cousin is the Air Force's RC-135, one of the many Boeing 707 derivatives. The services typically require their electronic reconnaissance aircraft to operate at the highest altitudes possible to maximize line-of-sight collection potential. In the case of the EP-3, a weighted-down P-3 derivative, that altitude rarely exceeds 27,000 feet. Because of this altitude limitation, the Navy's reconnaissance EP-3s have suffered in comparison to the Air Force's RC-135s, which operate routinely at higher altitudes.

For a dedicated reconnaissance platform, high-altitude capability (equivalent to that attainable by a commercial airliner) is an important requirement. The Navy's doctrine of "Forward . . . From the Sea," which has shifted the focus from deep-ocean naval battles to operations in the littoral regions, makes high-altitude even more important—to give our reconnaissance platforms the maximum-possible view inland; a jet aircraft's inherently higher speed also would yield big dividends in the form of more responsive support over a larger area than could be provided by a turboprop.

The E-6 has its own, distinctive flight profile requirements. The airborne command-and-control platform's mission is well suited for the 707 airframe. The C-130, last of the four aircraft targeted for replacement, continues to be a workhorse for the Navy.

All four of these aircraft require a long-range capability and should be equipped with aerial-refueling capabilities. Excluding transport aircraft, they should all have complete command-and-control connectivity. Plug-and-play capability from mission to mission, changing the sensor capability according to threat, would provide necessary diversity for the platform.

The Navy's ES-3

The Navy has decided to cancel the carrier-based ES-3 mission and rely on EP-3s to take up the slack; indeed, the EP-3 already is scheduled to absorb much of the carrier-based ES-3's signals intelligence mission during the coming year. If the Navy's Common Support Aircraft (CSA, a single aircraft to replace E-2, S-3, ES-3, and C-2 aircraft) continues to sputter, the P-3 could end up absorbing the S-3 ASW/ASUW mission for some time—depending on the S-3's service life. Carrier battle group commanders would be able to carry more attack aircraft at the cost of having to rely on shore-based P-3s and EP-3s for support—a risk we would have to be willing to take. The Falklands Conflict taught us that some scenarios might find a battle group more than 3,000 miles from any land-based support. Whether a new maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft assumes sole responsibility for battle group support or shares that role with a carrier-capable Common Support Aircraft if and when that aircraft comes off a production line, there will remain a requirement for external support. EP-3s normally take their orders from the National Command Authorities and support carrier battle groups as a secondary mission, although this will change when the ES-3 retires—at least until the CSA arrives.

Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance

Today, the patrol squadrons (VP) and reconnaissance squadrons (VQ) are reevaluating their organizational structures. Excluding the TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out, strategic communications aircraft) mission of VQ-3 and VQ-4, a general alliance slowly is emerging among the squadrons sharing the P-3. The patrol special projects unit (VPU) squadrons have been aligned closely with the VP hierarchy, but only in the last few years have the distant cousins of VQ-1 and -2 been able to share in the benefits that the VP organizational structure provides. What is yet to be seen is whether the signals intelligence mission will be aligned or even absorbed by the joint (i.e., Air Force signals intelligence) community or join more closely with the VP community to become a maritime patrol and reconnaissance community.

The VP/VQ/VPU community can prepare for the immediate future by identifying the changing threat environment and the ways in which the Navy is adapting to meet those threats. Within that environment there might be a logical application for a consolidated maritime patrol and reconnaissance platform—especially in light of the loss or potential loss of key carrier assets. We also need to prepare ourselves for the long term by consolidating the community organization for a multimission approach to getting the job done.

Assuming a single-configuration maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft is delivered to the fleet, the community should be prepared by being structured for multi-mission capabilities—i.e., VP, VQ, and VPU mission profiles. This would mean 12 to 18 squadrons, possibly designated maritime patrol and reconnaissance (VPR), plus a fleet training squadron. Ideally, each carrier could deploy with her air wing and a dedicated VPR squadron that would support the carrier battle group or associated amphibious ready group from the bases and detachment sites already established around the globe. The VPR squadrons would participate in work-ups and extend the battle group's capability to include special operations support. It is not the way we deploy P-3 squadrons today. Twelve squadrons would be the minimum, but at least six additional squadrons probably would be required to meet national commitments.

While awaiting the Multimission Aircraft, the community should realign itself to a maritime patrol and reconnaissance type of organization. Face it, the P-3 aviators are seeking to expand their mission capabilities and the EP-3 fliers long to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Restructuring makes sense as an intermediate step. What we might see are VPR squadrons that possess combinations of P-3s, AIP P-3s, EP-3s, VPU P-3s, VIP P-3s, counterdrug P-3s, etc. When a squadron deploys with a battle group, it could take with it the various P-3s required in the battle group's area of responsibility. Tactical support centers could provide operational support for all the maritime assets. If the Multimission Aircraft has at least a limited ASW capability, such as today's VPU aircraft, then the Navy can retain its hard-won deep-water ASW skills to protect carrier battle groups from submarine threats in the littorals while remaining prepared for the next superpower with a global, deep-water submarine capability.

Already, we are witnessing change in the Navy's land-based air structure. This year, Patrol Wings Pacific will become Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Pacific, and Patrol Wing 10 will become Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10. Historically, VQ squadrons have not been attached to wings, but VQ-1 moved from Guam to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, in December 1994, where it became part of Patrol Wing 10 and facilitated the terminology change to add "Reconnaissance" to the wing's functions. Even more recently, VQ-2 has been assigned to Patrol Wing 11. What were once patrol special projects units are now VPU squadrons (they always have been assigned to patrol wings).

For years, enlisted specialists in the VP/VQ/VPU community have moved among squadrons; they know the airframe and its avionics, and they know the missions. Officers are beginning to do the same as the community comes closer together. Many are getting warfare specialties in VP and VQ. (VPU always has been a disassociated sea tour for both VP and VQ officers.) We will continue to see "exchange" tours between VP and VQ as VP junior officers and lieutenant commanders jump the fence to do their department head tours in VP and vice versa. This sharing of the knowledge base and diversification of the training/career pipeline is necessary to achieve cross-pollination between the communities if we desire a VPR-type organization. It is one of the best ways we can prepare ourselves organizationally for the future.

The Forgotten P-3

Discussions of a Multimission Aircraft to replace the P-3 and EP-3 have not included VPU-1 and VPU-2's Special Projects P-3. Saying that these are standard P-3s with some EP-3 equipment and some optics capability added is a gross oversimplification of the aircraft's capabilities, but the aircraft does represent consolidation of VP and VQ mission capabilities. The consensus is that the VPU P-3 cannot perform the VP mission as well as a P-3 or the VQ missions as well as an EP-3. Recent advances in technology, not to mention change in the number of targets in the threat environment, make the VPU P-3 configuration a smart solution to challenging mission profiles and shrinking fiscal resources. Crews are led by one VQ naval flight officer (NFO) and one VP NFO (the pilot's backgrounds will vary). At a time when VP and VQ are searching for common ground, the VPU P-3 is a solution waiting to be discovered. What VPU has provided us is a very sensible model of what a maritime patrol and reconnaissance mission might look like. Today, this model might not be able to do either mission as well, but in the future, it could be a smart approach to providing the required support for the battle group. Given advances in miniaturization and processing power, aircraft such as the Special Projects P-3 will be able to handle more and more of both the VP and VQ mission requirements.

—R. McCord

Lieutenant McCord, a naval flight officer, is a catapult officer on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). His initial tour was with VPU-2. After flying the EP-3 with VQ-1, he was a Project Officer for the EP-3, ES-3, and VPU sensor upgrades at the Naval Air Systems Command.



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