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P-3K2 Major New Capability

Overview of the Orion hand-over ceremony in the No. 5 Sqn Hangar, Monday 2 May. The Secretary of Defence is speaking from the podium.

Introduction into Service Ceremony

It was a squally, rainy day, with wind gusts drumming on No. 5 Squadron’s hangar doors and rain driving across the tarmac, when the first of six upgraded Orions was handed back to No. 5 Squadron at Base Whenuapai on 2 May.

Orion NZ 4204—the prototype P-3K2—returned to New Zealand in late April, after being away in Texas since 2005 for the P-3 Mission Systems Upgrade Project. The project will see all six Kiwi Orions re-equipped with an airborne surveillance and Response Capability that is, as Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell says, “up with the very best”.

The upgraded P-3K2 Orion aircraft introduces a fundamental change to the operation of the Orions as they transition from a Maritime Patrol Force to an airborne Surveillance and Response Force. This change is significant because the focus of the operations will include overland operations as well as traditional maritime operations.

During his speech, Secretary of Defence Mr John McKinnon said, “This is a significant margin of difference, an upgrade in capability and reach—a leap forward for the RNZAF and our Defence Force.”

The production phase of the project will see the five remaining Orions cycle through Safe Air’s facilities at Blenheim, to be stripped internally, re-wired and re-equipped with the new mission systems.

Already Orion NZ 4201 is in Blenheim and the upgrade of that aircraft is well advanced. At the rate of about one every six months, by 2014 the Air Force will have a fleet of six P-3K2 Orions all newly equipped with 21st Century surveillance and communications systems.

Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell foresees a very exciting time for the RNZAF, as operational testing and evaluation begins. “Our goal now is the delivery of the capability as rapidly as possible. I believe our P-3K2 Orions will be better equipped than ever to support Defence Force operations world-wide and other government agencies closer to home.”

Nicolas Farah of L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, the Texas-based company that completed the upgrade on the P-3K2 prototype, said his corporation was “very proud to be delivering one of the most capable surveillance systems they have ever constructed. As partners, L-3 Communications remain committed to the mission, to work closely with the Ministry of Defence and the RNZAF to deliver the rest of the fleet”.

The Project

The project’s origins lay with the 2001 Maritime Patrol Review. At that time the P-3s had a mix of 1960s and 1980s equipment. Built new as P-3Bs in 1966 (New Zealand was then was the first country outside of the USA to operate Orions), the fleet had been modernised in 1982 under Project Rigel, which saw some of the mission systems replaced and upgraded.

In 2000, Project Kestrel saw the fleet structurally renewed to extend their life. But the aircrafts’ tactical capability was limited, and affected by hard-to-support older systems. As well, international air traffic control standards were changing and there was the continual need to remain interoperable with New Zealand’s partners, particularly Australia.

In October 2004 the Crown signed a contract with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems for a $373 million upgrade for the aircraft.

New Zealand industry participation was always intended for the project and Safe Air of Blenheim is the key sub-contractor in the production phase. Beca Applied Technologies will provide through-life support to the RNZAF for mission and training systems.

Modifications include:

  • Communications systems
  • Navigation systems
  • Surveillance systems
  • Data management systems
  • State-of-the-art glass flight deck
  • Mission preparation and analysis system
  • Flight deck trainer
  • Crew trainer
  • System and software testing and integration laboratories
  • Flight planning systems

Image Gallery - Issue 125