Germany’s Defense Ministry has put a halt to an ongoing midlife upgrade (MLU) of its fleet of Lockheed Martin P 3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as it shifts to examining potential replacements. The news emerged via Reuters on June 16 after a confidential ministry document detailing the shift in Defense Ministry approach was leaked.
The document – drafted for review by the parliamentary defense committee – allegedly shows that the Defense Ministry opted to drop the Orion MLU process following an economic feasibility study.
The legacy fleet of eight P-3C Orions were purchased secondhand from the Netherlands in 2005, with the first unit entering German service in April 2006 following upgrades to the fleet’s 20-year-old systems conducted at Manching in Bavaria prior to delivery.
After a government report released in April 2011 noted that the aircraft suffered from operational limitations, Germany sought rectification through an upgrade program via the U.S. Department of Defense’s government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) mechanism.
A request for sale to Germany of elements allowing for the procurement, integration, and installation of hardware and software required for upgrading the Orions’ mission computer and acoustic systems was approved by the U.S. State Department, with notification then given to Congress by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) on April 11, 2014.
A contract was then agreed to between the German government, Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defence and Space on July 22, 2015. The contract called for production of eight midlife upgrade kits (outer wing, center fuselage and horizontal stabilizer) by Lockheed Martin, with Airbus responsible for installation of the kits on the German P-3Cs at its Manching facility.
Additional planned upgrades formed part a broader modernization aimed at retaining the German P-3C Orions in service out to 2035.
But the cost and technical issues cropping up during the upgrade process – along with heavy damage inflicted on one P-3C unit in March 2020 – forced the Defense Ministry to acknowledge that delays in the ongoing modernization effort and consequent lack of fleet-wide operational readiness made termination of the mission equipment upgrades practical. However, according to the Defense Ministry, the rewinging measures being undertaken will continue in order to prevent an immediate capability gap from emerging.
As a short-term solution, the Defense Ministry is examining platforms to bring into service by 2025. These include the C-295 Persuader MPA variant from Airbus, the Rheinland Air Service (RAS) 72 Sea Eagle, and the P-8A Poseidon from U.S. aerospace giant Boeing.
Notably absent from the list of alternatives put out via press release by the German Defense Ministry on June 17 is the Kawasaki Heavy Industries P-1 now in service with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) being pitched by Kawasaki globally as a potential MPA solution.
Germany’s longer-term MPA solution will most likely be found via the Maritime Airborne Warfare System development program, set to be undertaken jointly by France and Germany post-2025 with an eye on achieving a new maritime patrol capability by 2030. The two countries signed a letter of intent (LOI) to develop this capability at the ILA exhibition in Berlin in April 2018 and have already have agreed to award manufacturers a two-year common requirements study determining the technical and financial elements involved.