A sailor guides a Navy EP-3E signals intelligence plane during a deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan. (Navy)
Although there has been an ever-increasing demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to help scour hostile ground, the Navy plans to cut nearly a quarter of its highly specialized multi-intelligence aircraft in the next few years.
Critics, including Navy officers familiar with the program, warn the cuts will degrade intelligence gathering for not just the Navy, but also land forces that have depended on the planes for combat operations. It’s been a concern that Congress was well aware of, though the Pentagon has certified there will be no lack of intelligence assets.
The types of planes on the Navy’s chopping block are two variants of the venerable P-3 Orion turboprop anti-submarine plane: the EP-3E ARIES II and the innocuously named Special Projects Aircraft.
Originally intended for maritime operations, the land-based planes for the last 10 years have primarily operated overmountains, cities and deserts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and South America. During the unrest in Libya last year, the Navy aircraft were believed to be the first ISR assets on the scene, said one high-ranking Navy officer.
Until last summer, there were four squadrons that could be assigned to these missions. But then, in a consolidation and a cost-cutting measure, the Navy merged the two fleet air reconnaissance, or VQ, squadrons, which fly the EP-3s, into a single unit. It did the same with the two elite special projects patrol, or VPU, squadrons. Now the fabled “Old Buzzards” of VPU-1, which dates back to the early days of the Cold War, are just part of the history books.
Though the Navy says it has what it needs to do its electronic intelligence mission, critics say the math doesn’t add up. Of 16 EP-3s, the Navy plans to eliminate four by Sept. 30, 2014. Of the six SPAs, the Navy plans to cut one by Sept. 30, 2013.
The EP-3 became notorious in an embarrassing 2001 incident over the South China Sea, when a Chinese F-8 fighter plane collided with an EP-3 on a signals intelligence mission. The damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in what became a diplomatic crisis for the new George W. Bush administration. China detained the 24 EP-3 crew members for 11 days. China also held on to the airplane for three months before sending it back to the U.S. in pieces, presumably with all of its secrets explored.
EP-3s carry signals intelligence and other ISR sensors, along with a crew of pilots, operators and analysts. “If it emits a signal, that plane can find it,” said a former high-ranking officer in an EP-3 squadron. He was one of two Navy officers interviewed about the cutbacks, on condition of anonymity.
The Navy’s ISR aircraft have been in high demand during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because intelligence resources are continually in short supply.
“All of the commanders bid for [ISR] assets, and there’s never enough to go around,” one of the former spy plane officers said. “They want as much as they can get.”
As for the Special Projects Aircraft, little is known about their capabilities. They are packed with acoustic, radar, optical, signals intelligence, measurement and signature intelligence and additional classified sensors.
Like the EP-3, the SPA was a Navy asset that found itself involved more over land than over the oceans during recent years.
“What makes them unique is their versatility and their speed,” one of the former EP-3 squadron officers said.
They can reach anywhere in the world within 24 hours, he said, “hit the deck running” and continue flying missions, typically for 21 days or indefinitely once spare parts start coming in, because they fly in their own maintenance crews to perform daily flight inspections.
At heart, some of the criticism comes from the ongoing debate of manned vs. unmanned ISR platforms. Supporters of manned platforms say EP-3s are more adaptable than unmanned aircraft, since they carry their own sensor operators and analysts onboard.
“An analyst is assessing intel as it comes in and deciding what doesn’t matter right now and what is needed, and he can turn it around quickly to the ground, and he can talk to the troops directly,” the former EP-3 officer said. The crews are also capable of performing tactical, support and strategic missions all at the same time, he said.
“When the bad guys make changes on the ground, we can counter and get on the ground to modify [sensor] packages quickly,” he said. “If I can carry it on a plane and hook it up to an antenna, the EP-3 will use it. It offers a whole lot of flexibility.”
Critics are concerned that as land wars are ending and the budgets are tightening, the Navy sees this as a good time to retire some of its ISR aircraft, forcing the Air Force and other services to take on more of the burden. Some in Congress have been keeping a skeptical eye on the Navy’s plans for its manned intelligence planes. In fact, the defense budget specifically ordered the Navy to certify it would not cut its SPA or E-P3 aircraft until it had a suitable replacement in the field.
The language in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2011 was incisive: SPAs provide the Navy with “its most advanced, comprehensive multi-intelligence and quick-reaction capability available.” Congress said the Navy had canceled the proposed replacement for the EP-3, “without planning and budgeting for alternative means to meet operational requirements for tactical-level and theater-level signals intelligence capabilities to support the combatant commands and national intelligence consumers.”
While the Navy is developing unmanned aircraft, such as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system, and the manned P-8A Poseidon, a version of the Boeing 737, to replace the ISR capabilities of the EP-3s and SPAs, those aircraft won’t be fielded for more than five years.
The Navy’s plan to replace P-3 variants with a medium-range maritime unmanned aircraft system was canceled, and the plan became “wait about a decade and we’ll have something,” said a staffer for a congressional defense subcommittee, who asked not to be named.
Congress, the staffer said, is concerned about the Navy’s lack of a plan to make up for the ISR capabilities it is sacrificing.
“We’re not sure the Navy shares those concerns,” he said.
On July 11, Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, certified to Congress that the Navy is in compliance with the congressional restrictions.
According to Joe Gradisher, a Navy spokesman, the criticisms are inaccurate and intelligence gathering will be just as robust as it was.
The “right-sizing” of the forces, he said, will leave the number of forward-deployed aircraft the same. That means, the Navy said, that there’s no gap in the planes ready for missions.
Gradisher said the Navy also now fields additional ISR tools, such as the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which includes electro-optical and infrared sensors, full-motion video, communications relay, Automated Identification System and radar.
The former EP-3 officer argued that manned ISR of the sort being cut is a kind of unwanted stepchild for the Navy. “Ninety-eight percent of [the EP-3] missions are over land, and the Navy doesn’t operate on land,” he said. “And the Navy pays 100 percent of the bill.”
The other EP-3 officer added that many of the budget decision makers in the Navy don’t fully understand the work of the squadrons.
“I think people have no clue what we really do,” he said. “It’s an intel collection platform, so unless you’re in intel analysis or collection, you don’t really know. ... The value of what we do is always classified, and unless you know or are willing to do the work to find out, you don’t know.”
The manpower savings for the consolidations will total $108 million from 2012 through 2016, according to the Navy. The aircraft maintenance and logistics savings will total more than $30 million.
(This article originally appeared in C4ISR Journal.)