Naval Air: P-8 Proves Itself


April 21, 2020: The U.S. Navy has ordered another 18 P-8A maritime reconnaissance aircraft at a cost of $83.4 million each. Eight are for the U.S. Navy while six are for South Korea and four for New Zealand. The first deliveries to South Korea will be in 2023 and New Zealand in 2022. With this new order, there are 124 P-8s in service or on order. Export customers now include India (18 aircraft), Australia (12), Britain (9), South Korea (6), Norway (5) and New Zealand (4). Five other nations; Canada, Italy, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey plus NATO (to establish a pool of P-8s for all NATO members) are discussing purchases.

Most export customers are, like the U.S. Navy, replacing older P-3C four-engine turboprop aircraft. India was replacing Russian built Tu-142M turboprops. India received a customized P-8I with an extra aft radar and a MAD (magnetic anomaly detector).

Until recently many NATO countries felt little need to upgrade their ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, which were usually P-3s. But since 2014 Russia has revived the Cold War and a growing number of NATO nations are responding by purchasing P-8As rather than refurbishing their P-3Cs so those could serve another ten or twenty years. With Russia a growing threat, the more expensive option (P-8As) became more attractive, in part because the P-8A can also handle ELINT (intelligence collection) work thus replacing smaller dedicated ELINT aircraft.

The P-8 Poseidon is based on the widely used Boeing 737 airliner. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two-engine jet, compared to the four-engine turboprop P-3, it is a far more capable aircraft. 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 versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air for about 10 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 up to 129 sonobuoys, 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 P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and four wing racks for weapons.

The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with hardpoints 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 and so far P-8s have over 255,000 flight hours and demonstrated that the new maritime reconnaissance aircraft is reliable.

The P-3 was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built, plus 600 P-3s. Some Electras are still in service. The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built.

The P-8 entered service in 2013. The U.S. is buying 122 P-8s and already has most of its planned P-8s in service. The P-8A got good reviews from its American crews as well as those of export customers. That is important because export customers for the P-3 are still operating about 200 of those aircraft and the P-8A is looking more attractive as a replacement. Some nations are using business jets equipped for maritime reconnaissance but without the P-8’s ASW capabilities.


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