The land-based EP-3E ARIES [Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronics System] Aircraft provides the capability to detect and exploit tactically significant electronic signals and communication Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) information to the appropriate Battle Group Commanders. The EP-3E ARIES II provides near real-time tactical electronic reconnaissance capability for Battle Group indications and warnings, targeting, suppression of enemy air defenses, and strike sorties. The small force of EP-3E electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft is in constant demand by fleet and theater commanders worldwide. Forward deployed to meet critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection requirements, EP-3Es detect, interpret and report tactically significant communication and radar signals. With sensitive receivers and high-gain dish antennas, the EP-3E can exploit a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory.
The EP-3E SIGINT reconnaissance aircraft is based on the P-3 Orion airframe. As of early 2000 the Navy had 11 aircraft out of 12 needed to meet worldwide commitments. The 12th aircraft, undergoing a P-3C to EP-3E conversion, will be ready in 2002. The EP-3E Conversion-In-Lieu of Procurement program authorized the conversion of 12 P-3C NUD Aircraft into EP-3E ARIES II Aircraft, extending their service life into the early 21st century.
The EP-3E ARIES II aircraft is a four-engine, low-wing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft utilizing state-of-the-art electronic surveillance equipment for its primary mission. It is powered by four Allison T56-A-14 turboprop engines, and has a wing span of 99 ft, 8 in., a length of 105 ft, 11 in., and a height of 34 ft, 3 in. There are 24 numbered seating positions, of which 19 are crew stations. The ARIES II is capable of a 12+ hour endurance and a 3000+ nautical mile range. The EP-3 is a weighted-down P-3, with a maximum altitude that rarely exceeds 27,000 feet. Given this altitude limitation, the EP-3s have less extensive target coverage than the Air Force RC-135s which operate at higher altitudes.
On 01 April 2001 a EP-3 US reconnaissance plane collided with and destroyed a Chinese military aircraft, causing the death of the Chinese pilot Wang Wei, in airspace near China's island province of Hainan. Later the US plane landed at a Chinese military airport. The US stated planes enjoy the freedom of overflight outside territorial waters. The Chinese disputed such arguments, pointing out that the incident happened in the airspace over China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, overflight over the EEZ of another nation should not violate the general rules of the international law such as the inviolable nature of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chinese argued that due respect should be given to the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation concerned and the national security, peace and order of the said nation should not be jeopardized. The Chinese stated that the activities of the US side in the airspace over the waters close to China's coast have seriously harmed China's national security and national defense interests and gone far beyond the limit of the freedom of overflight provided for in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Chinese contended that these activities are abusing the freedom of overflight. The US planes are not conducting ordinary flights in the airspace over the waters off China's coast, but are carrying out reconnaissance activities to collect intelligence about the Chinese side. The Chinese claimed that such military activities of the United States during peacetime threaten China's national security, peace and order, constitute a provocation against China's national sovereignty; and violate the basic norms of the international law on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity among nations.
The EP-3 aircraft that was forced down in China in early 2001 was rebuilt, and resumed flying. The aircraft was disassembled and transported by a chartered Russian-made Antonov-124 cargo plane from Hainan Island, to the Lockheed Martin Marietta, GA plant to be rebuilt. The Navy spy plane downed after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet took its first test flight on 15 Novmber 2002, 16 months after it was shipped back to the United States in pieces.
The Navy conducted studies to possibly replace the EP-3 aircraft with its future Multi-Mission Manned Aircraft (MMA). The replacement airframe type the Navy considered has severe limitations as a SIGINT collection platform.
By mid-2004 the EP-3 current program of record anticipated the Navy partnering with the Army and using their Aerial Common Sensor program to deliver a Navy variant. There's a great deal of overlap between ACS and the mission of the EP-3, and so that is the track for replacing the EP-3.
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