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From the P-3C Orion to the P-8A Poseidon

Plane-changing at a price

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A promising new naval aircraft is taking its place on guard in the Western Pacific but at a price: U.S. Navy sailors will now begin to give up an older airplane that has held their hearts and flown their missions for decades.

The P-8A Poseidon is beginning to replace the P-3C Orion.

In the first overseas deployment of the new Poseidon – a derivative of the Boeing 737-800 airliner that is being delivered on schedule and on budget – Patrol Squadron Sixteen, or VP-16, led by Cmdr. Molly Boron, will deploy to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, where the Navy has maintained a long-range patrol presence for many years. Poseidons are scheduled to be operational at Kadena on Dec. 1, 2013.

P-8 Poseidon

A P-8A Poseidon sits on the flight line at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla. as a P-3C Orion passes overhead, Jan. 9, 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gulianna Dunn

The P-8A will deploy to the Western Pacific in an era when tensions are high on the Korean peninsula and the Obama administration is touting its “pivot” toward the region. Of interest to VP-16 sailors now is North Korea’s submarine fleet, which relies on dated technology but is still deemed formidable.

A 1997 estimate by the U.S. Navy credits North Korea with having four former Soviet “Whiskey” class submarines, twenty-two Chinese “Romeo” class subs and a small number of locally built “Romeo” derivatives known as Sang-O class submarines. Other sources put Pyongyang’s inventory of diesel-powered submarines as high as 70. Kadena is the spot from which U.S. maritime patrol crews keep their eyes on the North Korean undersea threat, as well as other naval developments in the region.

When VP-16 arrives at Kadena near year’s end, the squadron will begin a continuous presence by the Poseidon in the Western Pacific.


At What Price?

It’s only the very beginning of the end for the P-3C Orion, which recently passed 50 years of operational service. The Orion will be around for a long time to come. But some of the venerable Orions are heading straight into retirement and some sailors will shed a tear. The transition from P-3C to P-8A means the Navy’s long-range, over-water maritime patrol community will begin doing things differently.

An unidentified blogger asked in 2009. “Why are they replacing a perfect plane?” Everything from crew composition (and comfort) to anti-submarine tactics will be a little different now.

The Orion gave crews a rough ride during extended patrol duty at low altitude, often while flying with one engine shut down to extend range and loiter time. The barf bag was a standard item of equipment for perennially airsick Orion sailors. Being at wavecap altitude meant plenty of flying in a salt-spray environment, which can be corrosive to any aircraft. The average P-3C today has 17,000 hours, one has 23,000, and nearly all of that time has been “hard” time accrued under demanding flying conditions.

P-8A Poseidon

A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft assigned to Patrol Squadron 30 flies above the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), not pictured, in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 16, 2012. The P-8A is replacing the P-3C Orion aircraft as the Navy’s standard maritime patrol aircraft. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mike DiMestico

The P-3C is equipped with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear, a key tool in its sub-hunting arsenal that won’t be found on U.S. Poseidons (though India will use MAD on its version, the P-8I). P-3Cs routinely fly 12-hour patrols while the P-8A is expected to be aloft typically for 10.5 hours. Not that it can’t stay up longer: The P-8A can receive air-to-air refueling, a capability not found on the Orion. The P-8A carries a crew of nine compared with 11 for a P-3C.

The Poseidon will spend more time at higher altitude and, even when down low, will offer a smoother ride. But a turbofan engine is less fuel-efficient than the Orion’s turboprop at low level, so P-8A operators expect to spend most of their time above 28,000 feet. Work is progressing to adapt the 12.75-inch Mark 54 lightweight torpedo – already optimized for air-to-underwater use against submarines, but typically deployed today at low level – so the P-8A can drop it from high altitude. Moreover, the Navy plans eventually to field a new-design High-Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC), its term for a next-generation aerial torpedo intended to be deployed from great heights.

Work is also beginning on a fatigue-test study to determine the effects on P-8A airframe life of carrying the Raytheon Advanced Aerial Sensor (AAS) long-range, high-resolution surveillance radar. The AAS is a dual-sided, active, electronically scanned array radar with a 40 foot long antenna housed in a pod mounted on a trapeze under the forward fuselage. P-8As fitted with structural provisions will carry the pod if tests signal a go-ahead.


Some Orions Stay

Twenty-nine Orions are being upgraded with fleet-wide fatigue repairs and new outer wing assemblies in anticipation of keeping a small number on duty beyond the planned 2019 retirement of the type. Included among the 29 are 16 EP-3E Aries II electronic intelligence aircraft that are not slated to be replaced by Poseidons. The Navy cancelled the EPX program for an EP-3E replacement in 2010.

The Navy hopes eventually to have five P-8A squadrons at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.; four at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., and three at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Consideration is being given to dispensing with the Kaneohe presence and consolidating all Poseidon units at Jax and Whidbey.

P-8A Poseidon

Capt. Eric Wiese, commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing (CPRW) 11, and Cmdr. Molly Boron, commanding officer of Patrol Squadron (VP) 16, discuss the differences between the P-3C Orion and the Navy’s newest aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, with Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and his aides, Jan. 15, 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gulianna Du

The Navy plans to acquire 117 P-8As, which will receive progressive upgrades as production and deliveries continue. The Indian Navy has eight P-8I models on order with an option for four more and may increase its purchase significantly. Boeing has proposed other versions as an air-to-ground surveillance aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and for maritime patrol for British forces.  Australia and Italy have also indicated interest in the aircraft. Boeing assembles all Poseidons in Renton, Wash.

Two 27,300-pound thrust (121 kN) CFM International CFM56-7B27A/3 high-bypass turbofan engines power the Poseidon. More than 5,000 examples of this engine type are in service around the world.

The P-8A will operate in coordination with the MQ-4C Triton high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle when the latter becomes operational in 2016.The Navy is building a new hangar at Kadena for the Poseidon, which has greater external dimensions than the P-3C.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...