India received the first of 24 P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft in May, and that aircraft is now being flown around to various naval air bases that it expects to operate from. This includes the naval air base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where P-8Is would be able to watch the three main Chinese trade routes through the Indian Ocean.
In the last three years India has increased its P-8I order from 8 to 24 aircraft. Only 12 are actually on order, but the admirals expect the performance of the P-8I to convince the government to pay for another twelve. Two years ago the navy was allowed to buy another 4 P-8Is, largely in response to growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean. 5 years ago India ordered its initial 8 U.S. P-8s, for about $220 million each. The growing expense of maintaining their existing Russian Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft, and the need for a more capable recon aircraft, led to that initial order. The first P-8I will arrive ahead of schedule.
What has made the Indian admirals so enthusiastic about an aircraft that first flew 4 years ago and is remarkably similar in terms of the equipment and techniques to the half century old P-3s it replaces? Arguably the most successful maritime patrol aircraft ever, the P-3 experience, and some of the same gear were merged with the equally admired Boeing 737 air transport to create the P-8, and that aircraft has exceeded expectations.
The Indian decision to switch to U.S. maritime recon aircraft was rather recent. 6 years ago India received another Russian built Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Beginning in 1988, when it received 3 of these aircraft, India has bought more until it had a fleet of 8 in service. The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the maritime patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. The Tu-95 aircraft entered service over half a century ago and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another 3 decades. Over 500 Tu-95s were built and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 60 Tu-95s but has dozens in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142.
India required aircraft like these for patrolling the vast India ocean waters that surround the subcontinent. India wanted to upgrade the electronics on its Tu-142s but has been put off by the high price, and low performance, of what the Russians offered. There was also some question of whether the Russians could meet their schedule and cost assurances. Then the P-8 was noted and the U.S. was willing to provide a customized (to Indian needs) version at a price the Indians could justify. Other navies in the region that used the P-3 were enthusiastic about the P-8 as a worthy successor to the reliable and effective P-3. The U.S. and Indian navies will both receive the new American P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft at about the same time. The Indians P-8Is are slightly different than the P-8A the Americans will use.
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 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 versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air 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, 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 four wing racks for weapons. The P-8 costs about $275 million each.