Naval Air: The P-8 Stumbles

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February 5, 2014: In late 2013 the U.S. P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine and maritime patrol aircraft entered service, four years after its first flight in 2009. The bad news is the manufacturer is confronted with complaints that the new electronics developed for the P-8A are not working well alone or with each other. The surface search radar and surveillance turret (a high end vidcam with powerful zoom) were particularly troubled, with many of their automatic and cooperative features not working properly. These problems were noted more than a year before the P-8A entered service. There are now 16 P-8s flying, six of them prototypes. Production continues, for India as well as the U.S. One was delivered to India in May 2013 and the Indians are quite upset over the sensor problems. 

Then again, there is much that is right about the P-8A. The bug thing is that it 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 replacing, 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. Problems with new military electronics are not unusual but it was hoped that the manufacturer would find and fix the worst bugs before the troops got the aircraft.

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-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.

Since 2010 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. That is now in doubt because of the problems with the sensors. India wants the P-8I to work because it needs a more capable recon aircraft, which is what led to that initial order.

The P-8 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. While the functions of the P-8 are similar to the P-3 most of the electronics are new and apparently not tested enough. 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.

 


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