France recently received the first of four Falcon 50MS maritime patrol aircraft. These are based on the 17 ton Falcon 50 business jet. The French Navy already has four Falcon 50M maritime patrol aircraft which arrived a decade ago. Some of these served on the Somalia anti-piracy patrol. The Falcon 50 is a three engine aircraft that, when outfitted for maritime patrol, can stay in the air about eight hours per sortie. The Falcon 50 is competing with several twin-engine turboprop maritime patrol models for export orders.
These smaller patrol aircraft are in demand because they take advantage of advances in electronics technology that permit these smaller aircraft to carry surface search radars and some electronic monitoring gear that can match that used by the older and larger turboprop designs. The most popular of these was the American four engine 61 ton P-3 and the 46 ton twin engine French Atlantic. These large search aircraft still have a place, especially for anti-submarine warfare on the high seas. But for coastal patrol, the new, smaller search aircraft are capable and a lot cheaper.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is replacing its turboprop P-3s with the P-8 Poseidon jet, which is based on the widely used Boeing 737 airliner. The Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet and a much more capable plane. The P-8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3 and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs first spotted by distant sonar arrays or satellites. However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons versus 5.6). This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, and sonobouys) are lighter and more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors. The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3. The P-3 was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built plus 600 P-3s. About 40 Electras are still in service. The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built. The P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and 4 wing racks for weapons. The P-8 costs about $275 million each.
France is trying to compete with the slightly larger Falcon 900 based patrol aircraft but is not getting much sales interest. That may change as the trend of lighter, more compact, and powerful sensors continues. Smaller commercial aircraft (business transports, both jets and turboprop) have been a booming segment of the aviation industry for the last few decades and there have been a lot of new developments that produce proven models ideal for conversion to military use.