Wednesday, January 25, 2017

ES-3A Shadow

The ES-3A Shadow variant of the basic S-3 Viking airframe was a short-lived but immensely valuable and capable platform optimized for signals capture and analysis.

“The heart of the Shadow is an avionics suite based on the Aries II system of the land-based EP-3E Orion. The Shadow's fuselage is packed with sensor stations and processing equipment, and the exterior sports over 60 antennae. The ES-3A Shadow crew is comprised of a pilot, an NFO, and two systems operators. Advanced sensor, navigation and communications systems allow the Shadow's four-person crew to collect extensive data and distribute high-quality information through a variety of channels to the carrier battle group. This gives the battle group commander a clear picture of potential airborne, surface and sub-surface threats. Missions flown by the detachment include over-the-horizon targeting, strike support, war at sea and reconnaissance.” (1)

The ES-3A was considered a direct replacement for the EA-3B Skywarrior.  The aircraft has 60+ antennae but otherwise shared the same flight characteristics as the base Viking albeit with a slight decrease in top end speed.  It was also capable of providing aerial refueling in addition to its electronic work.

ES-3A Shadow

Two squadrons, VQ-5 and VQ-6, were established in 1991 with one based on each coast of the US.  In total, 16 Vikings were converted to the ES-3A configuration and they were typically operated two aircraft per deployed carrier.  The squadrons were disestablished in 1999.

The ES-3A was an immensely valuable aircraft because it offered the ability to provide over-the-horizon (OTH) detection and classification using passive sensors.  It’s passive nature and relatively small size compared to the E-2 Hawkeye gave it the ability to wander farther afield than the Hawkeye and expand the sensor picture. 

With the current emphasis on stealth and passive sensing using IRST and the like, we could use this aircraft today.  This was another one of the Navy’s penny wise and pound foolish decisions.


(1) website,


  1. With its ability to do (in various guises) ISR; airborne refueling (at least recovery tanking, not sure about mission tanking) and ASW, it seems like the Viking was a proto example of the 'payloads vs. platforms' thinking of CNO Greenert.

    It continually amazes me that they Navy retired it. Was there something else missing? Was its maintenance cost ridiculously high?

    1. The plan was to have F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Lightning IIs with EW packages, but that's not nearly as good.

      I think that a small lightweight dedicated EW platform is needed for sure.

      The other big problem is that the DAS system on the F-35 is not nearly as good as the European PIRATE system.

  2. The ES-3A (16 aircraft community) was vertically cut from the US Navy in less than 18 months 1999-2000.

    The reasoning went like this during this time of "peace dividend" and Bill Clinton. What have you done for me lately re Battle Group SIGINT, was the mission still viable? As you will remember CVNs/BGs went directly to Arabian Gulf and pounded Iraq from air whenever Clinton ordered (to divert from Monica, etc...). Remember, Russia and China weren't adversaries then and we still had EP-3's, right?...

    When asked this no one at OPNAV or JCS, etc. stepped forward and fought it and then it was a done deal.

    Also the Shadow's cut was part of Blackjack Nathman's plan for an all- Boeing Hornet air wing, unencumbered by any purpose-built airplanes or missions. That was a business decision, supposedly they claimed. The S-3B community of 120 aircraft then offered up the mission of ASW de-configuration to reduce costs for the Viking fleet.
    Vertically cutting the ES-3A was just a trial balloon...A year later retirement was planned for S-3B "Sun Down" 2004-2008. Yes, the same ADM John Nathman who was the first CNAF (CNAL/CNAP became "air forces"...) after TYCOM "mis"-alignment but when he engineered this cutting out deal was when he was at OPNAV. Check him out in wiki...

    Yes, of course costs were high for a legacy aircraft (but significantly less than the Tomcat and EA-6B or the EP-3 for that matter...) and money was budget tight- yet legacy avionics replacement for navigation/comm systems were just then being installed that reduced cost/hr (AVDRL) for the ES-3. The faulty projections told "our leaders" the fatigue life was probably restricted which actually came out 180 degrees out later in 2004 as we all may know or not know now.. Those ES-3As in the desert have probably another 10K hours left on them just like the S-3Bs there...

    By 2001 though, all the accounts for ES-3 and S-3B were drained and given to the H-60R program.

    Is that specific enough for you?


    1. A nice summary. I'm quite familiar with the various rationales that were put forth for eliminating the S-3 community. None were valid.

      The main lesson that we failed to understand, and still fail to understand, is that strategy drives force structure, not budget.

    2. Just a small taste, the demise of the ES-3A and S-3B, but one that really blueprints why we are where we are. Lessons learned galore.
      Those responsible, or some who even who prospered from it career wise, tell me they had to make those decisions because they were "in the ring", not me, and therefore I had no clue. That is the reasoning they learn at USNA. I am sure part of it is correct but that mindset is wrong. The taxpayers and the US Navy eventually feel the pain. Of course you have to break some eggs to make an omelet but we've been eating acquisition oatmeal for years....


  3. Thanks b2. Not sure I followed with all the acronyms, but...

    it sounds like... it was budget and a short sighted idea that we wouldn't have to face any major peer competitors?


    I get so frustrated by that. If we decided to get out of the peer war business fine. But then we don't need billion dollar supercarriers or multi million dollar superhornets.

    And the idea of cutting ASW when the submarine is arguably the biggest threat to our CVN's is insane. Flat out insane. I'd be real curious to see the uptime and maintenance cost of an ASW Helo vs. an S3.

  4. Just asking, but what are the advantages of the ES-3A compared to the Growler? Are there missions the Growler can't do (or do as well) that an ES-3 can?

    1. Very simply, the Growler performs electronic countermeasures (commonly referred to as jamming) while the Shadow performs signal collection and analysis. The Growler tries to counter enemy radars while the Shadow tries to find enemy units by capturing their signals. The Growler is active while the Shadow is passive.

      While there might be a degree of overlap, the two are different missions. Hope that helps.

  5. Two things off the top of my head:

    A) judging by the FAS article it looks to have a decent fuel fraction and

    B) it's not a growler, which I think you'd want to use for actual attacks and not burn time on ISR.

  6. Airborne EW systems can be effective in identifying known radar that operate on fixed frequencies and on identification from history file of a hostile radar system the EW aircraft can apply a preprogrammed countermeasure technique. To detect and counter a new digitally programmable radar systems that have unknown behaviors and agile waveform characteristics is difficult.

    To overcome this DARPA initiated the Adaptive Radar Countermeasures development program, ARC, to enable systems to generate effective countermeasures automatically against the new and unknown and ambiguous radar signals in near real-time.

    DARPA placed ARC contract with BAES in March 2013 due to complete in 2018 to develop an EW capability to identify characteristics of new generation radars and then automatically adapting to jam it. ARC using AI so as in real-time learn what the enemy radar is doing and then on-the-fly create a new jamming profile.

    As to when ARC will become operational is unknown as the new multi-billion Raytheon NGJ under development for the updated F-18G does not include this technology.

    1. You've indirectly touched on one of the serious problems with modern developmental programs. They take so long to come to fruition that by the time they do, the threat has moved on.

      The Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) had its requirements specified in 2008. It's not expected to be operational until 2021 and, of course, that will slip. It likely won't be in fleet service before 2023. Whatever its capabilities are today, theoretically, they'll be obsolete by 2023. The adaptive countermeasures is a good example.

    2. NGJ replaces the venerable ALQ-99 pod, still in ise . I think the NGJ retains that scalability with saw updates to counter the threat for its main mission of strike support ECM/ECCM.

    3. Oops. Saw should be Software Updates. Programmable to keep up with threats and defeat obsolescence, hopefully.

  7. "You've indirectly touched on one of the serious problems with modern developmental programs. They take so long to come to fruition that by the time they do, the threat has moved on."

    One of the things that I believe affects the military is that its addicted to technology. You can't just have a great next gen fighter. It has to be the uber fighter that's one step beyond in terms of tech.

    Look at the teen series of fighters. While alot of them had advanced tech (The radar on the Tomcat, etc) were more on the evolutionary side than revolutionary, and most were made (originally) for one purpose. Tomcat: Fleet interceptor. Eagle: Air superiority. Viper: Low end Air superiority.

    Now its almost reflexive to go uber tech, with the theory being we can't afford large numbers of other jets.

    I agree that we have to run the numbers (Having 3000 cheaper fighters means training 3000 pilots and logistics for...etc.) nor do I think we should go backwards and have uber simple things, But instead of using technology to advance the known to a state where its better, and more reliable (think a modern car engine) we keep going to the bleeding edge.

    And technology development has changed. In the 70's and 80s consumer tech lagged behind the big research and development houses of the government. Now, with the switch to electronics and the information age things have swapped places. By the time the F-35 becomes a real fighter (not just IOC) the camera in my phone will probably be better than the camera's in its EOTS. I'm only partially kidding.

    The US just can't afford vast fleets of >$100 million fighters.

    I don't know what to do with the F-35. Cancelling it now seems a massive waste. At the same time, I wonder what does an F-35 look like if you eliminate the lift fan requirement, the magic helmet, give it a bubble canopy, use levels of sensor fusion just beyond whats in the F-18 say, current to slightly improved IRST, and as much modular, open source commercial electronics as possible.

    You could still have stealth shaping, but let the engineers at Lockheed make something with F-16 like manueverability. Maybe its not *as* stealth, but its good enough.

    What does the LCS look like if you aren't relying on the next gen mission modules?

    The entire military is in a spending death spiral.

    1. "I don't know what to do with the F-35. Cancelling it now seems a massive waste."

      You've not looked at the lifetime operating costs for the F-35. Depending on what numbers you want to use, the operating costs approach the trillions. While the sunk costs may seem large and wasted if we terminated the F-35, the costs to continue the program dwarf what's already been spent. Look up some lifetime costs and see if your opinion about cancelling remains unchanged.

    2. For what it gives... ugggghhhh. That's a way to spend out military into irrelavence.

  8. I love this place. Y'all went from talking about lost CSG EW/ELINT capabilities/missions platforms to ECM/ECCM to the "F-35" which is really three planes in one monster. :-)

    Military aviation is an expensive business and the lifecycle especially so. Think about how much people cost and add that in too.

    We've already spent over/near $200B to date on F-35 x3.
    Today I read an article that projects the F-35A at costing $100M each, the F-35B at $135M and the F-35C at $134M. That is expensive but remember the SuperHornet ain't cheap coming in at $75M each. Do the math. We don't have as many SuperHornets today than the 300 TomCats, A-6/7 and 110 S-3Bs they replaced nor as many Growlers as the Navy had EA-6Bs. Expect the same with F-35 which means smaller numbers of each variant. I expect the same for the USAF F-15/16 to F-35A procurement ratios..

    You can bet that F-14s, F-15s and F-16s and the new F-18 legacy cost a lot for the taxpayer back during the Reagan build up too but we spent what we had to and it worked. We defeated the Soviet Union and communism. What do we want the outcome to be today?

    I wrote this a couple days ago about the F-35 and especially the Navy version:

    This "Joint" program is really a three separate aircraft program, with some commonality. This is done on purpose almost to confuse, mitigate issues and seem invincible.

    1- The USAF version, is the original '95 requirement to replace the F-16. There are a lot of F-16's. Think about it. The F-35A fits the mold being a single engine aircraft. The USAF wants/needs this aircraft bad. Remember LM won this because they acquired general Dynamics, the Fort Worth TX builder of the F-16. OK- I say let them have it but do not be fooled into replacing the A-10 or F-15 Strike eagle aircraft or their missions with it entirely...The FMS for the F-35A can thrive and make money for the USA & LM.....

    2- To be blunt the F-35B V/STOL was the most selfish version produced because its design drove the other two. When one considers the real USMC mission and what this platform will replace only the powerful Marine "lobby" would press for its procurement. If you don't agree with them you're unpatriotic...The AV-8B it replaces has not been an important combat aircraft for 40 years for the US, despite its lobby and the same will go for the F-35B. Especially so due to its price.... Think about it. This version could be vertically cut or severely reduced by President Trump and US taxpayers would be the winners. The USMC has other options including the SuperHornet they shunned at the turn of the century that exceed their real requirement and everyone knows it. The Brits can buy their small number and the assault carriers Marine mission can still be effective with V-22, H-53K and Cobras only. US F-35B- cut drastically.

    3- The third Naval conventional carrier version, the F-35C, replaces the legacy and SuperHornet aircraft, supposedly. There is an SuperHornet line open/operating and yes, the jet could be improved as COMNAV discusses. No it will NOT be very stealthy or have all the bells and whistles the F-35 carries (maybe). However it is a "bird-in-hand" and we know it works...Enough said. The F-35C and its numbers projected, if not vertically cut must be reduced in kind to perhaps one (10) plane squadron/airwing. If reduced, and the SuperHornet IS chosen in the mid-term, the MQ-25 tanker program must be ACCELERATED to fuel this carrier airwing. please. I'll not suffer any discussion of Gen4-5-6...Area Denial and X-Offsets. Give me real and tangible. Give us stuff to defend this nation.

    I would expect President Trump and his administration to do something like the above- common sense. I hope.


    1. "What do we want the outcome to be today? "

      That is I think the $10,000 question. I won't pound on the F-35 anymore, but I have the feeling from the Navy that what they'd really like is more range and more standoff weaponry. The F-35 increases range but it adds another plane to the carrier (horrors!) which they seem cool on and they don't like the price.

      Another blogger (Can't remember whom) said he'd like to see the drone become a mission tanker; which means it should carry around 20K lbs fuel for *other* aircraft, and still be able to fly to a refueling point, loiter a bit, and fly back. So that's not going to be small (or cheap).

      A very big emphasis seems to be on range. Which I agree with.

      If the F-35C is really massively expensive/flt hour then it might be easier and quicker to make more superhornets with CFT's, bigger engines, JASSM's and LRASM's and call it a day. The mission tanker would make that nice, but I don't see it happening. This 'solution' might be better than F-35's but it isn't 'good'.

      My ideal airwing from my perspective breaks some rules the Navy seems to live by:

      A) More than 1 airframe to do more than 1 job. Bring back the S3's/EA3's seems like a no brainer (look! I'm bringing things around to the original post. Kind of...) We need ASW and recovery tanking. The ELINT mission could be a plus.

      B) V22? Really? No. We want more range, not less. Build more C2's if nothing else.

      C) Put CFT's on the SH's we have

      D) Make a longer range attack aircraft. It doesn't have to be pretty if it can carry stand off weapons. (Of course, targeting is an issue.... achilles heal for me).

      E) Make a real, honest to God Fleet defense fighter. Again, doesn't have to be uber fancy. Something about as complex as a navalized Flanker or a bit less would do. But it has to have range. With the missiles out there the Carrier has to be Sugar Ray Leanord not Marvin Hagler.

    2. As an aside.... Where did the USMC get such clout that it could swing its way through both the USAF and the USN???

      I remember reading as a kid that the Corps always had the cheapest equipment, and took a sort of pride in not spending their entire allocation of budget every year.

      Now they seem willing to blow everything on the F-35. Which is odd for a group that seemed so dead set on infantry skills.

    3. Aye, seems so. Today there was an article pointing out the fact there was a carrier gap in 5th fleet. The piece then went on to describe how the ARG/MEU arriving would and could cover the gap...
      I submit that that an ARG/MEU is not interchangeable with a CSG and any such discussion is not worthy or serious.
      Many who view carrier aviation as obsolete or replaceable jump all over it. Hence the F-35B...

  9. "I love this place. Y'all went from talking about lost CSG EW/ELINT capabilities/missions platforms to ECM/ECCM to the "F-35" which is really three planes in one monster. :-)" My bad. CNO's being nice.

    What got me there was the progression to the NGJ and the slow pace of development. Which I think is tied to our addiction to uber alien tech.

  10. B2, hit most of the high points. Money was the big item. Also remember that the Common Support Aircraft (CSA) was under development and then killed off also. It was to take over S3, ES3, Tanking, E2 AEW, COD and EA-6B. That program also died in the 1990s because of costs. Some of the ES3 equipment was rolled into the first EA-18s (IE the ALQ-218 system) but the bigger lose was not just the equipment but the Language Techs in the back that could actually listen to the collect in real time, something that the EA18 can not do.


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