The naval air arms of two countries will soon be operational with the P-8 Poseidon, the long-range, high-altitude maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft derived from the Boeing 737 airliner. The U.S. Navy and the Indian Navy are moving toward having the Poseidon in service.
On July 7, the first P-8I for the Indian Navy began its test program, completing a nearly four-hour sortie from Boeing Field in Seattle that demonstrated flying qualities and handling characteristics. The second aircraft for India made its initial flight at Boeing Field days later on July 12.
Boeing is assembling twelve P-8Is for India – up from an initial eight – under a contract awarded in January 2009. The first aircraft is slated for delivery to the Indian Navy next year.
P-8Is will operate from Rajali, a naval base at Arakonam, near Chennai, flying eight-hour missions over the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the northern Indian Ocean. Indian officials have spoken of the P-8I order increasing to 24, while a Boeing official said the total could reach 30.
The P-8I is expected eventually to replace India’s eight Russian-built Tupolev Tu-142 MK-E “Bear F” specialized ASW aircraft, also at Rajali – giant turboprop planes that have great range and endurance but are costly to operate and require reinforced runways (According to the Indian Navy, Rajali has the longest military runway in Asia). Ironically, the series of aircraft from Tupolev codenamed Bear were developed from the Tupolev Tu-4 copied from B-29 bombers, a Boeing product, interned in the Soviet Union during World War II.
Indian officials haven’t said whether the P-8I will operate from the country’s southernmost air station at Bazz at Campbell Bay in Andaman, which was opened July 31 and would give patrol aircraft better access to the crucial maritime passage in the Straits of Malacca.
The second production P-8A Poseidon was delivered to the U.S. Navy on July 17. Navy pilots ferried the P-8A from Seattle to Jacksonville, Fla., where the first low-rate initial production (LRIP) P-8As are being used for aircrew training. Boeing is building 13 LRIP P-8As under two contracts awarded last year. They follow six flight-test and two ground-test airframes. The Navy intends an eventual acquisition of 117.
At Jacksonville, fleet replacement squadron VP-30, the “Pro’s Nest,” is now training crews from the co-located patrol squadron VP-16 “War Eagles.” The Navy’s plan is to introduce one new patrol squadron into the P-8A training effort every six months.
The Poseidon will be armed with torpedoes, SLAM-ER stand-off cruise missiles, and other weapons. Some literature credits the aircraft with the capability to use aerial depth charges, but U.S. forces no longer keep any in inventory. The Poseidon is able to drop and monitor sonobuoys.
When conducting maritime surveillance missions, the P-8A will operate in conjunction with the MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aerial vehicle, a derivative of the RQ-4B Global Hawk.
The Poseidon has plenty of room but perhaps not a lot of natural light inside its fuselage. The five operator stations (two naval flight officers plus three enlisted aviation warfare operators) are mounted in a sideways row, along the port side of the cabin. None of these crew stations have windows. An observer window, called a “day or night indicator” by sailors, is located on each side of the forward cabin.
The Poseidon will replace the P-3C Orion in ASW and shipping interdiction duties and will also collect electronic intelligence. The Orion has just passed its 50th year in service, which began in August 1962. A total of 757 Orions was manufactured, including 650 from Lockheed and 107 from Japan’s Kawasaki. Some 402 remain on duty with 21 nations, including 120 considered combat ready in the U.S. Navy. Orions have been challenged by low-level operations in a salt-spray environment. Designed for a service life of 7,500 flying hours, the Orion fleet now averages about 16,000. The Navy has a P-3 Recovery Plan aimed delaying airframe retirements and preserving the health of the fleet until P-8A and BAMS are farther advanced.
First flown April 25, 2009, the Poseidon is a version of the Boeing 737-800 airliner with 737-900 wings and with 767-400ER raked wingtips instead of 737-style winglets. Although India’s P-8I will have it, the U.S. version will dispense with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear for the first time on an ASW aircraft in recent years. While the Poseidon can fly 12,000 feet higher than an Orion, it isn’t optimal for cruising at low level where MAD gear is effective.
On the Orion and other fixed-wing ASW airplanes, a MAD sensor is placed at the end of a boom or a towed aerodynamic device to reduce interference from electrical equipment or metal in the aircraft. Even so, a submarine must be near the aircraft’s position and close to the surface to be detected.
“A P-3C can shut down two engines and loiter down near wave-cap level using the other two,” said author and naval analyst Norman Polmar in an interview. “I would have preferred a solution that included MAD gear – possibly on a turboprop aircraft instead of a pure jet – and the capability to deploy a torpedo at low altitude. The Navy is working on a complex way to enable the P-8A to launch a torpedo from 28,000 feet or higher but that may not be the best answer.”