As of 2018, there are currently several aircraft in the United States military had have served for fifty years or more. The tried-and-true nature of these planes, along with technological upgrades, have allowed these old systems to continue serving effectively into the second decade of the 21st century.
One of these aircraft is the Lockheed P-3 Orion, in service with the U.S. Navy. Initially designed as a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, it has since evolved into a multi-mission platform that has proven its worth in areas outside the core competency it was originally designed for. It is, without a doubt, one of the most versatile aircraft in the U.S. military.
The Orion debuted in 1962 as the P3V-1 and was based on the airframe of the L-188 Electra commercial airliner. A month later, the military revised its designation system and it became the P-3A. Throughout the Cold War, the Orion served predominantly in the maritime patrol and ASW role, tracking Soviet Navy submarines and preparing to destroy them, if necessary. The plane’s versatility was recognized early; numerous P-3s were converted to suit a variety of specialized military and non-military roles, including scientific research, meteorology, customs and border security, and electronic intelligence (ELINT). This last role would produce the EP-3 Aries variant, which was involved in the infamous 2001 Hainan Island incident, in which a Chinese fighter collided with a Navy EP-3, killing the Chinese pilot. The American plane was able to make a safe landing, but its crew of twenty four were held captive for ten days before being released.
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Other countries recognized the utility of the P-3 and the aircraft has gone on to serve with eighteen other nations. The list of foreign operators is quite diverse, ranging from staunch U.S. allies like Australia to sworn enemies like Iran (though the acquisition was made during the Shah’s reign when Iran was an American ally)
At its apex, there were twenty four active-duty P-3 squadrons across the U.S., along with thirteen Naval Reserve squadrons, three test and evaluation units, an oceanographic development squadron, plus two “special projects” squadrons, whose activities were highly classified. Today, the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance (MPR) community is about half the size it was from its halcyon days. The remaining P-3s in service are divided among Patrol and Reconnaissance Groups Atlantic and Pacific, the former possessing Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven and the latter Wings One, Two, and Eleven as well. Unlike during the Cold War, the MPR community is based almost exclusively out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville on the Atlantic side and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island on the Pacific.
Though there are eighteen squadrons across the two groups, the gradual replacement by the Boeing P-8A Poseidon has reduced the number of P-3 squadrons to only three, all stationed at NAS Whidbey Island. These are VP-1 “Screaming Eagles,”, VP-40 “Fighting Marlins,” and VP-46 “Grey Knights,” which has the distinction of being the second-oldest aircraft squadron in service. They are augmented by two Naval Reserve squadrons, a special projects squadron based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and VP-30 in Jacksonville, which continues to serve as lone Fleet Readiness Squadron (FRS) for both the Orion and Poseidon. Finally last, but not least, the EP-3E Aries II continues to serve in a single squadron, VQ-1 “World Watchers,” out of Whidbey.
Viewed largely as a support platform, the Orion has participated in nearly every major military conflict involving the U.S. since its introduction. In October 1962, only two months after its operational debut, P-3s were patrolling the waters near Cuba to enforce the blockade against that country during the missile crisis. During the Vietnam War, the P-3 participated in Operation Market Time to interdict the supply of Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam. It was during Market Time the P-3 suffered also its first combat loss in April 1968.
During the 1991 Gulf War, P-3s were flying surveillance missions in-theater and were valuable asset. Though it expended no ordnance of its own, Orion crews coordinated attacks against Iraqi naval vessels, contributing the destruction of dozens of Iraqi surface combatants.
When the Soviet Union collapsed later that year, it reduced the need for the P-3s but did not take the wind out of the sails of the P-3s original mission just yet. Rather, the P-3s needed to exhibit capabilities beyond ASW and maritime patrol to avoid the chopping block that the post-Cold War defense environment had created.
The P-3s succeeded in proving their worth two years later, when they were supporting the efforts of U.S. Special Operations forces in Somalia. During the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, in which over the U.S. lost two Black Hawk helicopters and one hundred Army Rangers and Delta Force operators held off thousands of hostile Somalis, Navy Orions provided vital aerial surveillance. In fact, the footage of the Black Hawk helicopters getting shot down was recorded by a P-3. The aircraft provided overwatch for the entirety of the battle, demonstrating its value as an all-seeing eye watching the backs of troops on the ground. This capability would become even more critical with time.
From its start in 2001, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been heavily aided by the P-3 in hunting down al-Qaeda terrorists and engaging Taliban fighters. Though largely a maritime platform, upgrades via the Anti-Surface Warfare Improvement Program (AIP) allowed the Orion to better-observe events ashore, including the mountainous terrain of Central Asia. P-3s not only watched the backs of American special operators, but also found hostiles hiding in the treacherous terrain and human-occupied caves through Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR).
It was ironic, perhaps, that it was during a kind of war other than what it was intended to fight that the Orion fulfilled its greatest potential. While it never de-emphasized its original purpose, the War on Terror has increased the demand of the P-3. Even at a time when the U.S. military has a wide range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, ranging from the E-3 Sentry Airborne Early-Warning and Control System (AWACS), the E-8 Joint-Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS), and a deep roster of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the P-3, along with the Aries ELINT variant, offers an “intermediate” option – a manned aircraft equipped with powerful sensors, long on-station loiter time, the ability to operate at lower altitudes, and equipped with weaponry, allowing it to defend itself or carry out offensive tasks as needed.
Today, the P-3 continues to prove its worth in theaters of conflict all over the world, including in the highly-active Central Command (CENTCOM) region, specifically in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Though specifics regarding their operations are sparse, official sources confirm Orion squadrons are conducting ISR in war zones like Iraq and Syria, along with ASW and non-military operations as well. Closer to home, P-3s are utilized by Customs and Border Protection to counter drug-smuggling and protect America’s borders.
A P-3 squadron will typically deploy for six months, followed by a thirteen to fourteen month inter-deployment ready cycle. During a typical deployment, aircraft and aircrews will be distributed among various locations within a specific geographical area. In recent times, P-3s have been deployed to Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Sicily, El Salvador, as well as number of other locations that remain classified. This is a testament to both the high demand of the Orion’s services, as well the critical nature of the missions it performs. Even while not on deployment, P-3s and their crews are often tasked for short-term assignments, such as humanitarian missions, search-and-rescue, or assisting in counter-drug operations.
The latest iteration of the Orion is the Update III Block Modification Upgrade Program (BMUP)+. A vast improvement over earlier versions, it is equipped a wide range of sophisticated sensors and electronics, including the AN/APS-137A(V)5 Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR). The ISAR creates a high-resolution two-dimensional image of a contact using an object’s own movement. This makes the APS-137 particularly useful in detecting smaller, well-hidden objects, such as pirates or a submarine’s periscope.
In addition to its ASW war load, the newest variant also carries the infrared-guided AGM-65F Maverick, the AGM-84G Harpoon ICR, the AGM-84K SLAM-ER ATA, and even the satellite-guided GBU-32(V)2/B Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).
Currently, the U.S. Navy employs a crew of ten on the Orion. In the cockpit are two Naval Aviators (NAs); the Plane Commander (PC) and the Plane Second Pilot. They are assisted by two enlisted Flight Engineers, who maintain and monitor aircraft systems.
Within the fuselage are two enlisted acoustic Sensor Operators, designated SS1 and SS2, who analyze data from sonobuoys to detect and track hostile contacts. Another enlisted Sensor Operator, designated SS3, is the electronic warfare operator (EWO), who operates the radar, MAD, electronic support measures systems, and FLIR. The three Naval Aircrewmen report to the Tactical Coordinator, (TACCO), a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) who, as the title implies, is in tactical command of the aircraft. Depending on the mission, either the PC or the TACCO may be in command of the mission. Rounding out the crew is another NFO who serves as Navigator/Communicator and an enlisted in-flight technician.