U.S. Navy: Time to Bring Back the S-3 Viking?

Recent Features

Features | Security

U.S. Navy: Time to Bring Back the S-3 Viking?

The retired aircraft could help fill a significant capability gap for carrier strike groups.

U.S. Navy: Time to Bring Back the S-3 Viking?
Credit: U.S. Navy

The boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in the U.S. state of Arizona may offer the solution – an interim one perhaps – to two critical capability gaps that carrier air wings (CVWs) of the United States Navy are facing for the foreseeable future. A Hudson Institute report, Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force and High-End Conflict, which was released in October highlights, among other issues, the relatively short range of the CVW’s strike aircraft and its limited anti-submarine warfare (ASW) repertoire. Also released last month was Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation, a hard-hitting analysis by Dr. Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Century (CNAS) that alludes to the CVW’s lack of deep-strike capabilities.

The S-3 Viking, which was taken out of service in 2009 in the name of cost savings – a move that has been criticized as short-sighted – could arguably fill these two shortfalls. Eighty-seven S-3s are being kept in mothballs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Resurrecting most of them could go some way towards addressing the aforementioned capability gaps. After all, the innocuous-looking aircraft had a diverse operational portfolio that included ASW and aerial tanking. Moreover, developing new aircraft, whether manned or otherwise, to address the two shortcomings would take time, and the Viking could serve as a stop-gap measure until these new platforms are brought into service; indeed, the S-3 is believed to be able to fly for another 10,000 to 12,000 hours.

Strike Range Problem

In recent years, a number of defense analysts have argued that the U.S. flattop will be rendered obsolescent, or at the very least highly vulnerable, by the proliferation of modern long-range anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Chief among such capabilities that would make the U.S super-carrier go the way of the battleship, experts contend, is the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), of which China owns two types: the DF-21D and its derivative, the DF-26. The Hudson Institute and CNAS reports along with several assessments of a similar nature acknowledge the threat posed by these missiles, maintaining that they outrange the U.S. CVW and concomitantly jeopardize the mother ship’s safety. To illustrate, the DF-21D and DF-26 have a range of at least 1,000 and 1,600 nautical miles (nm), respectively.

In stark contrast, the sole U.S. naval attack fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, has a combat radius of only about 500 nm – albeit without mid-air refueling. In fact, this relatively “short-legged” platform often relies on aerial tanking for missions conducted at a greater distance. That said, the coming into service of the carrier-based Joint Strike Fighter, supposedly in 2018, will not solve the CVW’s lack of reach, as the F-35C Lightning has only a marginally higher combat radius – 550 nm – than the Hornet. Therefore, even with the F-35C deployed, the U.S. carrier would still be well within the A2/AD envelope of potential adversaries like China.

Aerial tanking is one ­solution to the CVW’s range woes. Indeed, much has been said of how American carrier strike aviation proved very useful during a number of campaigns in the post-Cold War era, such as Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, but it must be noted this was made possible largely because of mid-air refueling – either by U.S. Air Force (USAF)/Allied tankers or by U.S. carrier aircraft operating in a refueling role. In other words, aerial tanking has proven to be a critical enabler of American carrier aviation before, and this will persist considering the short reach of the F/A-18.

This state of affairs is not helped by the fact that the Hornet itself is often utilized for mid-air refueling. In fact, the U.S. Navy has been using F/A-18s in a “buddy” tanking role, which takes up a significant 20 percent of their flying time. This reduces the availability of the aircraft for combat missions such as strike and fleet air defense, and as such is a luxury that the carrier strike group (CSG) would be unable to afford during a high-intensity conflict. To compound matters, in such contested settings, USAF tankers might not be readily available for the Navy’s use due to the Air Force’s likely competing demand for these highly valuable assets.

The Hudson Institute report recommends as a solution to the range problem the development of a new aerial tanker that is either manned or unmanned. The CNAS analysis takes similar lines. However, unmanned aviation technology, despite advances in recent years, is relatively fledging. Such a platform is also unlikely to come cheap. To illustrate, Dr. Jerry Hendrix cites $175 million as the cost for a pilotless system with both combat and mission tanking roles. Lastly, developing and bringing into service an aircraft from scratch would invariably take years. For example, the first derivative of the Hornet ­– F/A-18A ­­– first flew in 1978 and was introduced into active service only five years later. An aircraft program could also run into serious problems during its developmental phase – just witness the travails of the F-35 project.

Sharpening the Spear also mentions, seemingly in passing, bringing the S-3 Viking back into service to alleviate the CVW’s range woes. This is arguably a more viable suggestion as this platform would seem to constitute a ready-made solution to the problem. For one, the Viking is a tried-and-tested aerial tanker, having added that role to its repertoire from 1999, after relinquishing its ASW portfolio, until its complete retirement from service a decade later. Indeed, during the Iraq War, S-3s played a crucial role in the air conflict by transferring some eight million pounds of fuel to friendly aircraft. And even though the S-3 may not be an ideal mission tanker because of its slow speed, its 1,750 nm range and ability to loiter for long periods ­– up to 10 hours – means it would make for a good launch-and-recover tanking platform. All in all, reviving the Viking could alleviate to some extent the CVW’s range woes. It could perhaps serve as a stop-gap measure until an organic aerial tanker for the CVW has been successfully developed.

Admittedly, the argument for reviving the Viking for this purpose is not an entirely new one. Last year, the aircraft’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, raised the idea of bringing the S-3 back primarily as the new carrier onboard delivery aircraft, replacing the C-2 Greyhound, and with a subsidiary role of that of an aerial tanker. Ultimately, the idea was rejected. Still, the two scathing reports recently released about the CVW’s deficiencies in striking reach should provide the American naval establishment with food for thought and give impetus to action to remedy the CVW’s problem of being outranged by the A2/AD systems of potential adversaries. To this end, the U.S. Navy should seriously consider the idea of re-activating its S-3 Viking units.

The CSG’s Shortfall in ASW 

Besides the range issue, the American CSG also faces a glaring shortfall in the realm of anti-submarine warfare. This discipline has atrophied across the U.S. Navy since the end of the Cold War, to the extent that Naval War College Professor James R. Holmes maintains that sub-hunting has been a “subsidiary function (of the USN) for a generation.” To make matters worse, the proliferation of modern submarine technologies, for instance air-independent propulsion that significantly reduces the detectability of diesel-electric boats (SSKs), seems to portend a particularly ominous future for the U.S. flattop.

It is after all a fact that submarines, friendly or otherwise, have surprised American carrier groups on several occasions, either during exercises or regular deployments. The most famous of such cases is arguably the 2006 incident of an old Chinese Song-class SSK surfacing at a distance within firing range of the Kitty Hawk task force. Critics point out that if a relatively inferior sub like the Song was able to penetrate the carrier’s screen, a more capable one such as the Kilo-class SSK, which is owned by several governments not exactly friendly with Washington, would find the endeavor easier. Things have seemingly not changed in the nine years since this incident. In fact, there was a report earlier this year of an old, nuclear-powered – read noisy and hence more detectable – boat targeting a CSG. In March, French defense authorities posted and soon deleted an article about the 34-year–old Saphir having a field day tracking and simulating attacks on the Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts. This incident, if true, does attest to yawning deficits in the CSG’s ASW capacity.

Contributing to this state of affairs is arguably the lack of an organic, sea-based, fixed-wing aircraft for area-ASW operations. During the Cold War, the aerial anti-submarine defense of an American carrier task force consisted of two components: area- and local-ASW efforts. The latter, currently the only form of aerial ASW practiced by CSGs, involves helicopters deployed in a 25-75 nm zone around the flattop. As for area ASW, it involves fixed-wing sub-hunters like the Viking patrolling an area of around 75-150 nm ahead of the carrier. Area ASW coverage from the air has not being carried out since the standing down of the S-3 as an anti-submarine platform in the 1990s, and this has essentially removed a critical layer of defense for the carrier group.

The upshot is that enemy subs armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles operating beyond the local ASW zone are able to target the CSG more easily. Indeed, the Kilos of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are armed with the SSN-27 “Sizzler” ASCM, which has a range of just over 100 nm, beyond the reach of the CSG’s local-ASW coverage. Ditto the PLAN’s Improved Shang-class boats, with their YJ-18 missiles boasting a reach of almost 120 nm. To fire its ASCMs at targets at such a great distance, the PLAN sub would invariably have to be cued by C4ISR systems such as reconnaissance satellites. While Chinese C4ISR capabilities are still developing, Beijing’s aggressive investment in this area is evident of its intent to bolster its “counter-intervention” strategy, of which submarines and anti-ship weaponry are integral components.

To address the CSG’s shortfall in area ASW, the Hudson Institute report calls for the U.S. Navy to acquire a new sub-hunting aircraft, but again this is easier said than done. The same points ­– the significant lead time and amount of money needed for a new platform ­­– that weaken the argument for getting a new aerial-refueling platform apply here as well. Reviving the Viking would bring area-ASW coverage back into the CSG’s concept of operations and reduce its vulnerability to long-range submarine-launched ASCMs. While this measure would admittedly be temporary, it offers a credible panacea to the carrier group’s ASW deficiencies until another sub-hunting aircraft becomes a reality.

The Way Ahead

Going forward, what would recommissioning the S-3 entail? At present, there are 87 Vikings in storage and South Korea has procured 12 of them, with an option for another eight. As this leaves only 67 S-3s available for retrofitting for active service, the 10 American supercarriers (11 next year when the USS Gerald R. Ford joins the Navy) could each get a squadron of six Vikings. During the Cold War, the Nimitz-class flattop carried almost 90 planes, so carrying another half-a-dozen planes is not an issue at all for the vessel as the 60-odd-strong CVWs of today are rather understrength.

More importantly, were the USN to revive the Viking both as a sub-hunter and as an airborne tanker, significantly more time and money would be incurred than if the S-3 were to be revived solely as a refueling platform. This is because the Viking’s ASW systems were removed in 1999, and new ones would have to be installed onto the plane if it were to stay relevant. There would be less hassle in reviving the Viking solely as a tanker aircraft because the subsequent refurbishment would be on a smaller scale.

Whichever option the U.S. naval officialdom chooses, it faces the issue of getting trained personnel for the Viking’s revival, should that ever come to pass. If American super-carriers were to each get a six-plane complement of the four-man crew S-3, well over 200 aviators to operate the aircraft and a host of assorted personnel to maintain it would have to be found. There is also the challenge of crew training. While some members of disbanded S-3 units might still be in active service, they will have to undergo considerable refresher training having not operated the aircraft for at least six years. And it goes without saying that personnel new to the S-3 will have to be trained from scratch to handle the aircraft. To be sure, this recommissioning process will take considerable time and money, but it will not cost more nor take longer than getting into service a new purpose-built aircraft.

Military organizations are generally resistant to change, and the U.S. Navy is no exception. In the face of emerging threats that could seriously undermine America’s hallowed Carrier Strike Groups, Navy brass should do some serious evaluation and consider measures that could genuinely address the issue. While recommissioning the S-3 Viking is one such – if interim – measure, the volte face would involve an admission by the establishment that it made a shortsighted decision in retiring the aircraft prematurely. Though this might be a bitter pill to swallow, the alternative ­­– finding the CSG being potentially outranged and outgunned in combat ­­– is definitely worse.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution.