Printer Friendly

S-3 Viking: from sub hunter to desert warrior.

In July 2008 the S-3 Viking was working toward a quiet 2009 retirement after 35 years of service. With the sun setting on the Viking's career, the Navy still had one more mission. In late July 2008 four S-3B Vikings with the VS-22 Checkmates flew to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq (See NANews, May-June 09). Equipped with AAQ-25 low-altitude navigational and targeting-infrared for night-extended range (LANTIRN-ER) pods, the Vikings made their last foray into the war zone to conduct nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions for coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Tracking insurgents in the desert was a far cry from the Viking's original role when it was introduced in 1974 as a Cold War Soviet sub hunter. Developed and rolled out at the same time as the more glamorous F-14, the S-3 Viking retired in similar fashion as the Tomcat--conducting missions that its designers never intended. The upgraded Tomcat became a capable attack aircraft before retiring in 2006 while the carrier-based Viking proved valuable seeking land-based targets in the desert.

The Viking's roots can be traced to 1964 when the Navy sought to replace the piston-engine S-2 Tracker. The concept of a modern, jet-powered, computerized aircraft promised to revolutionize carrier-based antisubmarine warfare (ASW) in the same way that the computerized P-3C would advance the sophistication of land-based maritime patrol and ASW capabilities.

The Navy awarded Lockheed Aircraft Company a contract to develop a replacement, initially designated VSX, in August 1969. The development benefited from the digital data-processing system on the P-3C that was entering service that year. The S-3's mission AYK-14 computer shared many software features with the P-3C and was in some ways more advanced than the initial Orion mission system.

The four-man crew of the S-3A included three officers--a pilot, copilot, tactical coordinator, and sensor operator (SENSO), a position normally filled by an enlisted crewmember. In addition to the OL-82 acoustic system, the crew operated the APS-116 search radar; the ASQ-81 magnetic anomaly detection system; the ALR-47 electronic support measures (ESM) system; and the OR-89 infrared sensor turret. The S-3 could launch sonobuoys from 60 externally loaded tubes, and could carry four Mk-46 torpedoes or a nuclear depth bomb in its bomb bay. Two wing pylons could carry rockets, mines, bombs, and fuel tanks.

The first of two YS-3A prototypes took flight in January 1972. The S-3A entered service with the fleet readiness squadron, VS-41 Shamrocks, at NAS North Island, Calif., in February 1974. The Redtails of VS-21 were the first fleet squadron to make the transition to the Viking, completing the switch from the S-2 in October 1974 and taking the new jet on its first carrier deployment on board John F. Kennedy (CV 67) for a Mediterranean cruise in June 1975. A total of 187 S-3As were produced by August 1978, two years after the S-2G Tracker was retired.

The Viking's sophisticated mission systems experienced growing pains in the carrier environment. Often the mission computer would "dump" during the stress of the catapult shot, forcing the crew to take time to reload the software program. The Navy, in its S-3 procurement program, had insufficiently funded spare parts for the aircraft, and the aircraft's mission readiness during the early years of its operation suffered accordingly.

The Viking's versatility began to shine, however, during a 1979--1980 deployment on board Kitty Hawk (CV 63). VS-33 operated the first converted US-3A carrier onboard delivery (COD) version of the Viking, which proved to be the only utility aircraft capable of reaching carriers in the northern Arabian Sea from the air base on Diego Garcia. The US-3A could carry three to six passengers and could haul 5,750 pounds of cargo. This proved valuable when carriers remained on station during the Iranian hostage crisis. The US-3A COD served until retirement in 1994.

Once the spare parts shortage was alleviated and S-3 carrier operations improved, the aircraft became known for its sophisticated ASW capability. It also became valuable as a surface surveillance platform because of its sensors, long range, endurance, and highly responsive performance.

With the growing strength of the Soviet fleet, including impressive surface combatants armed with long-range cruise missiles, the Navy embarked in 1981 on a weapon system improvement program to transform the ASW aircraft into a formidable anti surface strike aircraft. The resulting S-3B first flew in 1984 and featured the APS-137 inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), which could image ships with enough resolution to identify them by class. The S-3B's main punch was embodied in the AGM-84 Harpoon cruise missile, which gave the aircraft the ability to strike shipping at over-the-horizon ranges, adding significant value to the carrier air wing in the Cold War. A total of 119 S-3As were converted to the S-3B configuration by September 1994, supplanting the S-3A in fleet service by 1993.

The Viking saw its first combat in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Although used primarily in support roles for surface surveillance and communications relay, VS-22 and VS-30 used the S-3B's ESM system as a threat warning system. S-3Bs were used in hunts for SCUD ballistic-missile mobile launchers. The Viking also launched ADM-141 tactical air-launched decoys to confuse air-defense networks. The APS-137B ISAR proved valuable in identifying Iraqi naval craft for targeting by strike aircraft. A VS-32 S-3B crew destroyed an Iraqi gunboat with three 500-lb. Mk-82 bombs, and a VS-24 S-3B crew destroyed an antiaircraft site with Mk-82s.

In April 1991 a new version of the Viking, the ES-3A Shadow, took flight. A total of 16 S-3As were modified into the electronic reconnaissance configuration to replace the EA-3B Skywarrior on carrier decks. The ES-3A kept the APS-137 ISAR, ALR-76 ESM, and OR-263 infrared systems, but the ASW systems gave way to a sophisticated electronic reconnaissance suite based on the EP-3E's mission suite. The copilot flight controls were removed and the station converted to a position for the electronic warfare combat coordinator. Two electronic warfare operator positions were installed in the rear.

Two new squadrons, the VQ-5 Sea Shadows and VQ-6 Black Ravens, established in April and August 1991, for the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets, respectively. Typically, S-3As deployed in two-plane detachments in each carrier air wing. They proved valuable in the Balkans in overland electronic surveillance during the mid-1990s and in Operation Southern Watch (OSW) over Iraq. The ES-3A's participation in Operation Desert Fox combat operations over Iraq in December 1998 turned out to be its last deployments. The Navy deemed the ES-3A too expensive to upgrade and retired the Shadow in August 1999.

During the 1990s the Viking was heavily employed in surveillance and refueling roles in the Adriatic in support of operations over Bosnia and in the Arabian Gulf region in support of OSW. The VS squadrons were redesignated Sea Control Squadrons in 1993 in recognition of their multimission capabilities. With the retirement of the A-6 Intruder in 1997, the S-3B and ES-3A became the carrier air wing's only organic refueling assets.

However, in 1998 the Navy removed the ASW and mining missions from the S-3 community, and instead relied on land-based P-3 Orions and ship-based SH-60 Seahawk helicopters for ASW protection of the carrier battle groups. The ASW systems were removed (including 44 of the 60 sonobuoy chutes) and the SENSO crew station was eliminated. A crew of three, but often only two, would fly the S-3Bs.

The S-3B performed its usual refueling and surveillance missions in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 and Operation Allied Force in early 1999, and continued OSW missions through March 2003. when Operation Enduring Freedom began after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, carrier battle groups launched the longest overland carrier-based strikes in history beginning in October 2001. The Viking's role as tanker was essential to the success of the aerial campaign in extending the range of F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler sorties over Afghanistan.

In March 2003 S-3B squadrons performed familiar roles for OIF. On one occasion in the opening phase o the war, a VS-38 Red Griffin S-3B fired a Maverick missile in combat for the first time, striking a vessel near Basra. During that year, the Navy deployed the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet with a tanking capability that allowed aircraft with buddy stores to accompany a strike formation. This marked the beginning of the end for the S-3B. Generally, as a carrier air wing acquired a Super Hornet squadron, it gave up its S-3B squadron.

The transition of OIF to a low-intensity conflict brought the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to coalition ground forces in Iraq. Many strike aircraft, with their electro-optical targeting systems, were pressed into a new role hunting IEDs and the insurgents planting them. With the retirement of the F-14 Tomcat, the Navy had AAQ-14 LANTIRN pods available for further service. The LANTIRN, operated by the COTAC, was installed on the starboard wings of 13 S-3Bs, initially with VS-32 Maulers in 2006 on boar Enterprise (CVN 65). An extended range version of the LANTIRN was tested on a VS-31 S-3B and deployed with VS-32 in 2007 during the aircraft's last carrier deployment. Ground commanders in Iraq valued the LANTIRN-equipped S-3Bs for their electro-optical surveillance capabilities for road-reconnaissance missions.

VS-32 took the Viking on its last major carrier deployment, returning home on 15 December 2007 on board Enterprise. The Maulers deactivated on 25 September 2008. The Viking's last shipboard venture ended when VS-22 departed George Washington on 29 May 2008 during the carrier's transfer to the Pacific Fleet. The Checkmates deactivated on 31 March 2009.

The Viking's longevity proved to be an asset for the Navy. What began as a carrier-based mission of Cold War sub hunting transitioned to the high tech task of hunting insurgents in the desert. Like the F-14 Tomcat, the S-3 Viking earned this longevity by always evolving to meet the challenges facing the Navy.

Thanks to Air International magazine for providing the original version of this article.




Wing span

69 feet


53 feet


23 feet


Empty: 26,500 pounds; maximum takeoff: 52,539 pounds


518 mph


40,000 feet


More than 2,300 nautical miles

Power plant

Two GE TF34-GE-2 turbofan engines



By LCdr. Rick Burgess USN (Ret.)
COPYRIGHT 2009 Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Burgess, Rick
Publication:Naval Aviation News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Previous Article:Airscoop.
Next Article:VAQ-134 at the tip of the spear in Afghanistan.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters