Cold War

The S-3 Viking – The Submarine Hunter

During the tense times of the Cold War, the mounting threat from Soviet submarines led to the introduction of the Lockheed S-3 Viking by the U.S. Navy.

This carrier-based, jet aircraft was conceived as a long-range, all-weather solution designed specifically to seek out and destroy submarines, acting as a crucial component in the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare arsenal.

Submarines, with their ability to operate covertly and strike lethally, have been a significant focus of military strategies, particularly for the Soviets who, inspired by German models, started to realize their potential during the First World War.


Driven by the USSR

The extensive expansion of submarine technology during the 1960s enabled the Russian Navy to deploy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, effectively patrolling global waters and presenting a significant and ever-growing threat to their adversaries.

The Viking was equipped with advanced avionics and computer integration, allowing the aircraft to process sophisticated sensor data for submarine hunting.

This burgeoning naval capability of the Soviet Union set the stage for a silent, invisible warfare, a cat-and-mouse game between Russian submarines and allied anti-submarine resources.

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The pursuit and neutralization of enemy submarines involve a sophisticated interplay of advanced technologies, sensors, and highly trained personnel, forming the backbone of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW).

ASW utilizes a range of assets including ships, aircraft, and submarines to locate, track, and eliminate enemy underwater threats.

Before the advancements made during World War II, the only viable tactic to counter submarines was to attack when they surfaced.

Once submerged, submarines had the freedom to navigate unseen, positioning themselves to launch their devastating attacks.

However, the development of specialized aircraft during the World War II era marked a significant shift, enabling the detection and destruction of submarines, altering underwater warfare dynamics.

The Lockheed S-3 Viking Enters the World Stage

The Lockheed S-3 Viking epitomized this evolution, serving as a multi-mission aircraft with capabilities to operate in various roles.

Remarkably versatile, when the Viking was finally retired in 2009, it necessitated the deployment of four different aircraft to fulfill the diverse range of missions it once performed.

A bow view of the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66) underway as16 aircraft from Carrier Air Wing One (CVW-1) fly overhead.

This aircraft, born out of the need to counteract the sophisticated Soviet submarine threat, reflects the intricate and evolving nature of naval warfare strategies during the Cold War period.

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The Lockheed S-3 Viking was not just an aircraft; it was a symbol of technological progression, a response to the clandestine warfare waged beneath the waves.

Hunter-Killer Concept

During the 1940s, amidst the escalating tensions of global warfare, the maritime landscape underwent significant strategic shifts. Recognizing the importance of sea-based airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), the U.S. Navy pioneered the hunter-killer concept.

This entailed deploying TBF and F4F torpedo bombers from escort carriers, wielding the advanced Mark 24 “mine” (popularly known as Fido).

Not just a mine, Fido represented the fusion of passive acoustic homing with torpedo technology, providing an effective means to target and destroy submarines.

Beyond its primary role in submarine hunting, the Viking served multifunctionally, performing aerial refueling, surveillance, and surface warfare missions.
Beyond its primary role in submarine hunting, the Viking served multifunctionally, performing aerial refueling, surveillance, and surface warfare missions.

As the advancements in aircraft radar technology flourished, they could detect even the subtle protrusion of a submarine’s periscope at the water’s surface.

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But as the airborne ASW capabilities grew, submarines too evolved, becoming quieter and thereby rendering them increasingly elusive.

The Soviets, ever determined, expanded their submarine arsenal. By the late 1970s, they boasted an intimidating fleet of 480 submarines.

Among them were the swift Alfa class, the nuclear behemoth – the Typhoon, and the colossal Oscar class, recognized as the largest attack submarine ever constructed.

Equipped with both nuclear and conventional weaponry, these submarines posed a significant threat to U.S. naval forces, leveraging their stealth capabilities to potentially strike undetected.

The US Response to the Threat

In response to the looming submarine menace, there was an evident need for a more adept countermeasure.

Traditional carrier-based fighters and bombers were ill-equipped to tackle this underwater challenge.

The exigency of the hour was a new breed of aircraft, tailored for ASW operations and aptly poised to counteract the sophisticated Soviet submarine threat. Thus, the stage was set for the birth of the modern Viking: the S-3.

S-3 escape system testing

Designed to supersede the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the U.S. Navy’s maiden ASW aircraft dedicated to tracking and neutralizing submarines, the S-3 Viking was a testament to the collaborative efforts of Lockheed and LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought).

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They envisaged an aircraft characterized by speed, endurance, and adaptability. Complementing the aircraft’s design, Sperry Univac provided state-of-the-art onboard computers, seamlessly integrating aircraft sensors with sonobuoys.

In 1974, the sophisticated S-3A Viking was inducted into service. Over the subsequent four years, 187 of these aircraft would be manufactured, each symbolizing the U.S. Navy’s unwavering resolve to safeguard its maritime interests and counteract the growing submarine threats of the Cold War era.

More Than Just an Aircraft

The Lockheed S-3 Viking, with seating for four – comprising three officers and one enlisted crew member, was a meticulously engineered aircraft purposed for intricate anti-submarine warfare.

The seating configuration consisted of the pilot and copilot/tactical coordinator (COTAC) occupying the front seats, while the tactical coordinator (TACCO) and sensor operator (SENSO) were situated in the back seats, each seated on Douglas Escapac zero-zero ejection seats, designed for upward firing.

The S-3 Viking was a carrier-based aircraft, meaning it operated from aircraft carriers, allowing for versatile deployment.
The S-3 Viking was a carrier-based aircraft, meaning it operated from aircraft carriers, allowing for versatile deployment.. S-3B Viking “Navy One” on USS Abraham Lincoln, May 2003

The S-3 Viking was more than just an aircraft; it was a meticulously designed weapon, aptly crafted to neutralize submarine threats.

With its formidable wingspan of approximately 69 feet and a tail height nearing 23 feet, the Viking stood as a colossal guardian of the seas.

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Powered by twin General Electric TF-34 turbofan engines, it showcased outstanding range, covering up to 2,700 miles, extendable via aerial refueling.

The Viking was capable of ascending over 5,000 feet per minute and descending a staggering 15,000 feet per minute.

This rapid descent capability allowed the aircraft to effectively patrol, quickly descend, and neutralize identified targets. The distinctive low-pitched hum of its twin engines earned it the moniker “Hoover,” likening it to the sound of the vacuum cleaner.

The integration of advanced technology enabled the Viking’s crew to share critical information seamlessly across their consoles, thereby maximizing operational efficiency.

Impressive Pay Load

The on-board general-purpose digital computer (GPDC) and multipurpose displays (MPD) enhanced collaborative operations, allowing the four-member crew to manage workloads equivalent to a twelve-man P-3.

S-3B with D-704 buddy store

In terms of arsenal, the Viking was no less impressive. Beyond its sixty sonobuoys, it could carry a varied payload, including general-purpose and cluster bombs, missiles, rockets, aerial torpedoes, mines, and even special stores like B57 and B61 nuclear weapons.

The aircraft’s sophisticated features extended to a retractable magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom mounted on the tail, in-flight refueling capability, an infrared sensor (FLIR), and an ALR-47 ESM system for detecting electronic signals, with the capability to data-link all tactical information to other ASW assets.

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Antisubmarine Squadron Forty-One (VS-41) at NAS North Island, Coronado, CA, welcomed the first S-3s in 1974. This squadron acted as the Replacement Air Group (RAG) for both coasts until the establishment of VS-27 in Jacksonville in the 1980s.

In 1975, the VS-21 Fighting Redtails were the first to deploy the Viking aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, continuing a long history of flying ASW missions, initially with the TBM torpedo bomber and the S2F.

The journey of the Viking concluded when the last squadron operating it, the VS-22 Checkmates, was decommissioned in 2009, marking the end of an era of unparalleled aerial dominance in anti-submarine warfare.

Maverick Plus System

The Lockheed S-3 Viking, initially commissioned to counter submarine threats, witnessed an evolution in its operational mandate as the Soviet surface navy burgeoned during the 1980s.

Beyond its initial anti-submarine role, the Viking adapted to perform over-the-horizon targeting, reconnaissance, and anti-ship strikes, responding to the multifarious maritime threats that characterized the Cold War seascape.

The aircraft has a wingspan of approximately 69 feet and could achieve speeds over 450 knots.

Beginning in 1987, a sophisticated upgrade transformed the standard Vikings into S-3Bs, equipped with advanced sensors, avionics, and weapons systems, inclusive of an innovative ISAR radar.

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The Maverick Plus System was integrated, empowering the aircraft with the capability to launch laser- or infrared-guided air-to-surface missiles, and the aircraft was also configured to house an AGM-84H/K “Harpoon” guided cruise missile.

To bolster its operational versatility, the enhanced S-3B Viking was designed to refuel other fleet aircraft by utilizing buddy stores, external fuel tanks affixed to the aircraft.

Furthermore, the aircraft was fortified with an ALE-39 countermeasure dispenser system and was armed with 90 pounds of chaff, flares, and jammers to counter enemy tracking systems.

By 1998, the MAD boom and SENSO position were phased out from the S-3B model. NAS Cecil Field’s VS-30 Diamondcutters squadron was the first to incorporate this advanced Viking, reflecting the ongoing quest to counteract evolving maritime threats effectively.

VQ-5 Sea Shadows in Guam

In 1991, a new variant of the Viking, dubbed ES-3A, was introduced, assuming the roles of surveillance and intelligence gathering to aid fleet and regional commanders in strategic decision-making.

US-3A of VRC-50 in 1987

Sixteen of these variants served with the VQ-5 Sea Shadows in Guam, and the VQ-6 Black Ravens, housed in NAS Cecil Field, fulfilled the same roles until the facility’s closure in 2015, post which they were relocated to NAS Jacksonville.

However, the financial constraints led to the decommissioning of both squadrons in 1999.

Moreover, specialized Viking variants like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Beartrap’ were commissioned for classified intelligence missions, reflecting the multifaceted utility of the Viking in naval warfare strategies.

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The evolution of the S-3 Viking exemplified the constant adaptational strategies necessitated by the dynamic maritime security environment during the Cold War, transitioning from a sub hunter to a multifunctional asset in naval operations.

1991 Gulf War

The Lockheed S-3 Viking, from its inception to its retirement in 2009, served as a stalwart asset to the U.S. Navy, providing unparalleled capabilities and adaptability during critical periods. The Viking’s operational versatility saw it deployed in numerous international conflicts, addressing multifarious combat and intelligence needs.

VS-32 S-3A: During the Cold War, the S-3’s main task was anti-submarine warfare

During the 1991 Gulf War, it played a pivotal role over land, neutralizing Iraqi Silkworm missile sites.

It further demonstrated its strategic relevance in the Yugoslav wars, Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, where it neutralized key targets including Saddam Hussein’s personal yacht, Al Mansur.

The gradual phasing out of the Vikings in 2009 saw the surviving aircraft repurposed for diverse roles.

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While three Vikings facilitated the clearance of the Pacific Missile Test Center’s ocean range, four were relegated to NASA’s Glenn Research Center for varied experimental roles until their eventual surrender to the San Diego Air and Space Museum in July 2021.

The contribution of the Vikings, underscored by their sophisticated detection and defense capabilities, was pivotal in safeguarding American naval assets from submarine and surface threats.

What plane replaced the S-3 Viking?

The F/A-18F Super Hornet, P-3C Orion, SH-60 Seahawks, and the P-8 Poseidon replaced the Lockheed S-3 Viking. Up to 2009, the USA Navy used the S-3 in its front-line fleet service. These new aircrafts are expected to take over the S-3 Viking’s carrier-based aircraft and anti-submarine abilities.

A Sad Goodbye

However, their absence has left a palpable void in carrier-based ASW capabilities, rendering the fleet potentially vulnerable to the burgeoning submarine technologies of adversaries like Russia and China.

This raises imperative questions about the long-term repercussions of such strategic gaps in naval defense capabilities.

Moreover, the legacy of the Vikings continues to resonate as one of the last S-3’s finds its permanent abode at the National POW/MIA Memorial and Museum, located at the historic former NAS Cecil Field on Jacksonville’s westside.

This aircraft, having served in local squadrons, will be showcased alongside a renovated A-7E Corsair and a newly painted F-18C Hornet, commemorating the rich legacy of the former Master Jet Base.

It serves as a perpetual reminder of the strategic adaptability and invaluable service the S-3 Vikings provided to the nation during tumultuous times, reinforcing the importance of strategic foresight in naval defense planning.