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Reserve Pilots in a Spin Over Navy Plans to Replace P-3

August 17, 1987|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

"We use the P-3 to hunt Russian submarines, and those submarines are a growing threat," a Naval Reserve Assn. officer said. "Any defense-oriented individual would ask, 'Why are we killing this program?' unless a higher authority said, 'No, you won't ask. You have your marching orders'."

That "higher authority" is the leadership of the active-duty Navy, which has sole authority to procure equipment for the reserve. All the reserve can do is advocate in its own interest and rely on private associations to lobby for it.

Lobbying Hard

The Naval Reserve Assn. has been lobbying hard for continued production of the P-3 and in some cases taking on the Navy establishment, much to the Navy's chagrin.

An article in the May issue of Naval Reserve Assn. News, the association's magazine, termed the Navy's handling of the P-3 program "crisis management" and added: "The Naval Reserve Assn. believes that actions to terminate P-3C procurement now, in favor of an ill-defined acquisition plan of unknown cost (referring to the LRAACA) . . . is both premature and unnecessarily risky."

The article prompted Leuschner, the active-duty anti-submarine warfare chief to say: "There's no question those are pretty strong words. But I believe in healthy debate." He added: "I have no doubt that the closeness with Lockheed has driven some of the debate."

Many groups of pilots develop close relationships with the defense contractors that produce their planes, but the P-3 is an unusual case. It is the Navy's only combat aircraft that operates from land bases, rather than being based on aircraft carriers.

"Being land-based means they are not part of the blue-water Navy," said a retired admiral who asked not to be quoted by name. "They do an important job, but they are not part of the hot-shot Navy. So, they have tended to look to the contractor for support instead of their own service."

Lockheed officials do not deny that the company's relationship with the aviators who fly the P-3 has grown close. "The P-3 is a very safe airplane. The wives of P-3 pilots like their husbands to fly in Lockheed products," a company official said.

But the close relationship is taken a little bit differently in Congress.

"It is arguable whether a proper arms-length relationship has been maintained between Lockheed and the P-3 community," a key congressional staff member said. "I can see how the environment was such that they became soul mates. The P-3 community in the Navy is the bastard child at the family reunion.

"They are shore-based and get treated like they are the Air Force. They are not macho because they don't fly off carriers. They sleep ashore in beds with sheets on them," he said.

Of course, the Navy discourages such thinking, but officials do not pretend that it doesn't exist.

"If you went to happy hour on a Friday night at Mira Mar (the Navy jet fighter station in San Diego) and asked if P-3 pilots are second-class citizens, you'd get a universal 'yes'," Leuschner said. "That is individual parochialism. You are not going to find that attitude at the levels where it counts."

If the Navy's active-duty P-3 fliers are somewhat isolated, then the P-3 reservists are doubly so. Generally, the reserve operates the oldest P-3 aircraft, designated the A and B models, handed down from the active-duty Navy. These airplanes have so many hours on their tired airframes that 137 are due to be retired by 1995.

The Navy effort to kill the P-3 has encountered a lot of entrenched opposition, however, and a surprising lack of interest by competitors that might take Lockheed's place as the producer of the P-3.

The impetus to end P-3 production originated several years ago when Rear Adm. Stuart Platt, whose job was to advocate competition in Navy procurement, convinced Navy Secretary John Lehman that the Navy was getting a bad deal out of Lockheed's decades-old role in building the plane.

"We found ourselves with a monopoly supplier, and I was interested in bringing to bear the pressures of the marketplace," Platt, now a maritime executive in San Francisco, said in a recent interview. "There has been a long-term romance with the P-3, much like with the biplane."

As much as Platt and Lehman wanted a competition, however, other aerospace firms had little interest in bidding to become P-3 producers because of the obvious advantage Lockheed had in building the plane. Moreover, Lockheed asserted that it owned the design rights to the P-3 because it was based on its own Electra.

The only way the Navy could generate industry interest was to allow other aircraft designs to be offered, and that gave birth to the LRAACA program. Lockheed officials, meanwhile, argue that a new design is bound to cost far more than the existing aircraft.

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