Surveillance: P-8A approaches critical design review

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By Gregor Ferguson

While all eyes are currently on Phase 1B of project Air 7000, Boeing is quietly positioning itself to bid in the future for Phase 2B, the manned replacement for the RAAF ageing AP-3C Orions.

As Defence and the RAAF start thinking seriously about the Multi-mission Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (MUAV) they plan to acquire in Phase 1B of Project Air 7000, Boeing has sent a reminder that its manned Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) program, the P-8A Poseidon, is gathering pace also.

It passed its Preliminary Design Review in November 2005, less than 18 months after contract award, and the Critical Design Review is scheduled for June this year.

The RAAF plans to acquire up to nine MPAs to replace its current fleet of 18 AP-3C Orions from about 2015. The new aircraft will be acquired under Phase 2B of Air 7000 - but Defence hasn't ruled out upgrading the AP-3Cs again, though senior RAAF sources have suggested that buying an all-new aircraft may represent a much lower risk.

The only two likely new-build contenders for Air 7000 Ph.2B are Boeing's P-8A Poseidon, which is under development for the US Navy, and an MPA version of the Airbus A319 airliner. Both designs have been shortlisted for an Indian Navy program to replace its ageing, mainly Russian-built, MPAs, and both are likely contenders also for Air 7000 Ph.2B.

The P-8A Poseidon is based on Boeing's 737-800 airliner, with -900 series wings. It won last year's US Navy contest for a new Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) and the US Navy has committed to acquiring 108 P-8As to start replacing its fast-ageing fleet of P-3C Orions from about 2013.

By that time the US Navy's current 204-strong fleet of MPAs will have dwindled to just 130 aircraft; in 2003 it could boast 228. The maiden flight of the P-8A will be in 2009, followed by a three-year flight test program at Patuxent River: Boeing and the US Navy aren't pursuing civil certification - the goal is military type certification.

Given the increasingly rapid decline of the existing Orion fleet, the P-8A program has high priority and is fully funded in the FY 2008 US defence budget.

While the P-8A has around 70 per cent commonality with the basic B737-800, its fuselage is manufactured on an all-new ITARS-compliant production line at Wichita where the bomb bay is installed.

Final assembly will take place at Boeing Renton facility near Seattle, again on a new ITARS-compliant line that can produce both P-8As and commercial airliners. The structurally complete P-8A will then be flown to Boeing Field for the final 7-8 month mission system installation and check-out phase of production.

The synergies between the P-8A and B737-800 will be strengthened when the US Navy, Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sign an MoU that identifies 1,200 common parts that can be interchangeable between the two aircraft. This will simplify logistics and in-service support considerably.

The P-8A is primarily a maritime Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Littoral Intelligence Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) platform - the US Navy doesn't want to encroach onto the land surveillance and reconnaissance mission of the US Air Force.

But it does have an inherent land surveillance capability and will be fielded initially with a mission system based very closely on that of the current P-3C Orion.

It will also embody some lessons and capability from the Boeing 737-based Wedgetail early warning aircraft: it will have the same in-flight refuelling receptacle on the upper fuselage as the Wedgetail (which means it can only be refuelled from boom-equipped tankers), and the same 100kva generators as the Wedgetail to cope with the new mission system's power demands.

The P-8A will be equipped with the US Navy's new Mk54 lightweight torpedo and with Boeing's AGM-84 SLAM-ER land attack and anti-ship missile. It will also likely be armed with the Block 3 Harpoon (The US Navy currently operates the Block 1 and will not order the Block 2 version, which has been acquired exclusively by export customers thus far).

It's not clear yet whether or not the P-8A will also be equipped to carry the AGM-154 JSOW-ER.

According to US Navy CAPT Mike Moran, the P-8A Integrated Project Team (IPT) lead, the mission system's open architecture lends itself to spiral development to enable relatively simple and quick capability additions and upgrades.

But the inherent risks in acquiring an all-new aircraft of this type are mitigated significantly by the service's decision to field the P-8A initially with a relatively low-risk mission system and sensor suite derived from that of the aircraft it is replacing. Boeing points out that it paved the way for this program by designing the airborne mission system for Britain's Nimrod MRA.4 MPA.

The US Navy originally invited expressions of interest from 10 nations to participate in the MMA rogram; eventually just Australia, Italy and Canada showed significant interest, but none of them were willing to make a significant investment in the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, so the US Navy is going it alone.

Boeing has identified an export market for between 50 and 100 aircraft, but is focusing at present on satisfying the US Navy's requirements. Its current philosophy: "build it and they will come".

Australia has been following the progress of the P-8A program closely; the RAAF acknowledges potential platform synergies between the P-8A and the Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft and the benefits that could be harvested by establishing a B737 'family' support centre at a base likely Amberley.

While the RAAF's manned MPAs seem set to remain at Edinburgh for the foreseeable future, concentrating the RAAF's heavy jet maintenance at a base like Amberley could generate some significant economies.

More pertinent, however, is the need to field an aircraft and mission system that will satisfy an expanded set of operational requirements for the RAAF's MPAs. These aircraft, like the MUAV to be acquired under Ph.1B of Air 7000, will be required to undertake land and littoral surveillance as well as maritime patrol and strike.

The P-8A isn't designed to meet all of these requirements, though it may have inherent capabilities to do so. Defence will need to investigate how much extra it needs to invest in a platform such as the P-8, or A319 MPA, or upgraded AP-3C, to meet its surveillance, strike and broader ISR needs cost-effectively.

Copyright Australian Defence Magazine, May 2007

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