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S-3 Viking: Why the Navy Misses Its Submarine-Killer Plane

The U.S. Navy retired its S-3 Viking fleet from active-duty service in 2016. However, NASA acquired one of these planes back in 2004

S-3 Viking
A Lockheed S-3A Viking aircraft from the anti-submarine squadron VS-37 Sawbucks on 11 Dec 1986, assigned to Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV-64).

“Skol Vikings!” is the battle cry of the Minnesota Vikings NFL franchise and its long-suffering fanbase.

Well, in the case of the Lockheed S-3 Viking antisubmarine warfare (ASW) warplane, “SKOL” could very well be an acronym (Lord knows we military types love to dine on our alphabet soup) for “Sub Killer Out Lurking.”

After writing an article for 19FortyFive on the P-3 Orion, I reckoned that one good ASW piece deserves another, so with that in mind…

Built to Loot & Pillage Soviet Submarines

However, rather than looting and pillaging hapless medieval British villages via wooden ships with dragonhead bows, this modern-day metallic Viking was built to ravage enemy – as in Soviet-designed – submarines from the air during the heady days of the Cold War. The Viking made her maiden flight on January 21, 1972, and was officially introduced into U.S. Navy service on February 20, 1974, as the Vietnam War was drawing down.  

Then-POTUS Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnamization policy notwithstanding, the debut of the S-3 couldn’t have come at a better time, as a mere two year’s after the warbird’s operational debut, the Soviet Navy would start building its behemoth Typhoon-class (or as the Russians prefer to call them, Akula, i.e. “Shark”) ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). What’s more, the USN’s then-current ASW aerial platform, the propeller-driven Grumman S-2 Tracker, was starting to get a bit long in the tooth. 

Ergo, the Navy developed its VSX program in order to find a worthy successor to the Tracker. Lockheed beat out Grumman with the winning design, which was quite a coup given the latter company’s long track record for building carrier-based warplanes. The end result was a flattop-borne all-weather aircraft capable of subsonic – max airspeed 494 mph (795kmh/Mach 0.79) – long-range flight. As my 19FortyFive colleague Harrison Kass notes, the then-new S-3 had several unique features:

Unlike most carrier-capable jet aircraft measuring around 50 feet long, the S-3 carried a four-person crew – rather than a two-person, or one-person crew. Upfront sitting side-by-side was the pilot and the copilot/tactical coordinator (COTAC). In the back, also side-by-side, were the tactical coordinator (TACCO) and the sensor operator (SENSO). The SENSO was enlisted, whereas the other three crew members were commissioned officers. The four-person configuration came with an odd ejection protocol: if the pilot or COTAC initiated ejection, all four crew members would be ejected, with the backseaters firing 0.5 seconds before the frontseaters to allow for separation. If TACCO or SENSO, sitting in the back initiated ejection, the pilots up front would not be ejected – no, they had to initiate their own ejection.”

Those weren’t the only unique features of the S-3. The Viking was the first ASW airplane to integrate all of its sensor systems into a single General Purpose Digital Computer (GPDC), which enabled those “Fab Four” (so to speak) crew members to consult and collaborate by analyzing the same data at their own station concurrently. In addition, the warbird’s engines had a fairly distinct sound, thus earning the sobriquet “War Hoover” (as in the vacuum cleaner brand, that is, not Herbert Hoover or J. Edgar Hoover). 

As for the plane’s original intended purpose of killing Soviet subs, the “War Hoover” could carry either two Mark 50 torpedoes, four Mark 46 torpedoes, or six depth charges. The Viking carried no air-to-air armament.

No Sub Kills, But Still Plenty of Action

As luck would have it, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR, therefore the S-3 crews never got to test their mettle against the Soviet Navy in an actual shooting war. The “War Hoover” was soon replaced by the aforementioned P-3 Orion – and more recently the Boeing P-8 Poseidon – for the Navy’s ASW mission, and after 1997 most Viking missions were reduced from four to two (pilot and copilot/Naval Flight Officer [NFO]). But that didn’t mean the plane didn’t see its fair share of combat action. Demonstrating the versatility of the platform, the Viking could also carry up to 4,900 pounds worth of bombs or missiles, such as Mk 82 500-lb (227 kg) general purposes bombs, Mk 83 1,000-lb (454 kg) bombs, or AGM-65E/F Maverick missiles.

The plane and her crews would use these various ordnance types with telling effect in several conflicts from the early 1990s onward. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, an S-3 crew launched from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt destroyed an Iraqi Silkworm anti-ship missile site with a well-placed salvo of AGM-84 Standoff Land Attack Missiles (SLAM), whilst other Viking crews targeted Iraqi naval vessels and destroyed multiple anti-aircraft gun emplacements and coastal radars. The plane would also serve admirably in the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and during Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan, frequently performing tanker duties in the latter conflict. 

The S-3 would return to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003, whereupon, amongst other sorties, an S-3B crew from the USS Constellation destroyed an Iraqi Navy command and control facility in the port city of Basra. Moreover, the Viking unwittingly played a role in one of the more controversial non-combat air ops of the OIF campaign, when then-POTUS George W. Bush sat in the co-pilot seat of one when he landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln for his infamous May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech.

Valhalla Time for this Viking?

Alas, all good things must come to an end … or must they? The U.S. Navy retired its Viking fleet from active-duty service in 2016.

However, NASA acquired one of these planes back in 2004 for flight research, operating out of its Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio before retiring that specimen in 2021. However, given the newer status of “near-peer” Great Power rivalries with revanchist Russia and Red China alike, rumors abound that the plane could possibly be brought back from retirement.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s not time to conduct this battle-proven quinquagenarian’s “Viking funeral” (c’mon now, you shoulda seen that bad pun coming a mile away) just yet. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).