P-8: What is the UK buying?

The SDSR announcement paves the way for nine British MPAs

The announcement that the UK Royal Air Force is to receive nine Boeing P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft was expected by many. The aircraft are likely to be established in service at RAF Lossiemouth by 2025.

Selected by the US Navy as the Maritime Multi-mission Aircraft (MMA) in June 2004, the P-8 Poseidon essentially replaces the 1960s-vintage P-3 Orion in US Navy service. To date, all aircraft deliveries have been ahead of schedule, a fact that Boeing takes great pride in, and which the US Navy greatly appreciates.

In mid-2004 Boeing was awarded a $3.89-billion Systems Development Demonstration (SDD) contract, ultimately resulting in six flight test vehicles and two static test airframes. Production of the first test aircraft began on December 11, 2007, and the P-8 made its first flight on April 25, 2009. The P-8A is basically a military derivative of the 737 — merging the 737-800 fuselage with the 737-900ER’s reinforced wings.

Incremental steps

The P-8A is part of an evolutionary acquisition program that will deliver capabilities in three major increments. The P-8A currently in production is a Baseline Increment 1 aircraft meant to recapitalize the ‘legacy’ P-3C Orion. This means that the baseline Poseidon will effectively mirror current P-3C capabilities. The Poseidon is currently certified to carry AGM-84D Harpoon missiles and Mk54 torpedoes. Weapons are carried in a five-station weapons bay and on four wing stations (each rated at 1,500lb).

Increment 2 is slated for 2016 implementation (to start with Lot 5), and will introduce the Multi-static Active Coherent (MAC) acoustics for enhanced undersea surveillance, an Automated Identification System (AIS) for tracking surface vessels, and High-Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC). Known as the AN/SSQ-125, MAC will be incorporated in two phases: Phase 1 will provide a shallow-water capability, and Phase 2 will provide deepwater capability.

HAAWC will permit the Poseidon to launch torpedoes from altitudes as high as 30,000ft and attack submarines at long ranges. Added to the Mk54 torpedo as a kit, HAASWC converts the torpedo into a glide weapon. As the torpedo reaches the water, it jettisons the wings and control surfaces and becomes a smart weapon that detects, tracks, and kills enemy submarines autonomously. The benefit of HAASWC is clear — releasing from higher altitudes not only keeps the Poseidon out of potential enemy air defense zones, it permits the aircraft to continue at optimum search altitudes and saves time and fuel associated with dropping to low altitude to attack targets, and then climbing back to patrol altitudes.

Flight trials of the Increment 2 upgrade began this past summer at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Starting in Fiscal Year 2016 all new-build aircraft manufactured will be to this standard, with existing platforms being retrofitted with the enhancements. Increment 2 upgrades will be installed per Engineering Change Proposals (ECPs), beginning with ECP-1 (MAC), ECP-2 (AIS and the first segment of HAASWC), and ECP-3 (full HAASWC with Mk54 guidance kit).

Increment 3 is planned for 2021 implementation. Although it is presently not defined, it should offer software architecture improvements, ASW upgrades, a network-enabled weapon, and additional sensor upgrades.

Boeing says that new production aircraft will be built to new increment standards and prior models will be retrofitted with the additional capabilities. According to Detwiler, these are mostly software modifications and can be done at the various basing facilities where the aircraft are housed. Boeing said that the implementation dates are goals, but noted that ‘[the] Navy wants to put technology on the aircraft that has matured and is ready on the aircraft as soon as possible.’

Although the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft program is still in development, one obvious use is to enhance long-range search and surveillance in the vast areas of the Pacific and other ocean regions. Developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, operating the Triton in conjunction with the Poseidon has long been a logical end-goal. Boeing is currently self-funding studies to evaluate P-8A/Triton interoperability.

Orders and deliveries

The US Navy programme of record was for 117 P-8s. The unit cost of most recently awarded Lot 5 production batch is put at $150m per aircraft, which Boeing says is down from $216m originally projected.

Production to date has come in six lots, including four Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) contracts, and the first Full-Rate Production (FRP) contract. A second FRP contract was awarded in August 2015. This latest $1.49 billion contract is for 13 aircraft and includes the first four aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It also included long-lead items for the third full-rate production lot of 20 aircraft —16 for the US Navy and four more for Australia.

The US Navy is to build a 12-squadron P-8 fleet. Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16) ‘War Eagles’ was the first squadron to transition to the P-8A and did so beginning in July 2012 and deployed in late November 2013 to Kadena AB for Seventh Fleet operations. VP-5 ‘Mad Foxes’ was the second squadron to transition and was on deployment until the end of 2014. VP-45 ‘Pelicans’ deployed next, followed by VP-8 ‘Fighting Tigers’. VP-10 ‘Red Lancers’ began transition in February 2015, and VP-26 ‘Tridents’ began their transition in September 2015. All East Coast squadrons are planned to complete their P-8A transition by February 2016. West Coast squadrons are scheduled to begin P-8A transition in October 2016. VP-4 ‘Skinny Dragons’ is said to be the first West Coast squadron to transition by spring 2017.

This article is an extract from Combat Aircraft Feb 2015 issue.

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