In addition to fleet-wide fatigue repairs, the navy is investing to replace the outer wing assemblies on at least 29 P-3Cs. The first 17 have already been ordered, with the service currently soliciting vendors for another 12, plus options for two more.
Lockheed, the P-3C manufacturer and outer-wing replacement contractor, believes the USN will buy even more assemblies and keep substantial numbers of Orions flying beyond the type's scheduled retirement date.
"There's going to be a subset of P-3s that the new platform at this point is not scheduled to take over," says Mark Jarvis, Lockheed's director of P-3 design and production. "We still think, if you look at their special mission airplanes, there is a universe of anywhere between 40 to 60 possible re-wing candidates."
Navy officials, however, are less optimistic. "We're up to a 29 outer-wing requirement right now," says Capt Aaron Rondeau, P-3 integrated product team lead. "I think that's probably going to stay at that number."
Rondeau acknowledges that the current requirement has declined from an original figure of 54 cited in 2007. This was reduced after the navy determined that about 25 wings were repairable as their damage had been caused by corrosion and not fatigue.
The USN agrees that the re-winged subset of its P-3C fleet will be maintained beyond the bulk of the Orion fleet's 2019 retirement date to perform special missions. This includes its 16 EP-3E Aries II electronic intelligence aircraft. The navy has installed Raytheon's littoral surveillance radar system on at least seven P-3Cs, providing a capability similar to the US Air Force's Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS.
Navy officials earlier this year cancelled the service's EPX programme, which would have replaced its EP-3s. Funding and requirements for a new programme are currently being determined.