New Zealand has ordered four P-8A maritime patrol aircraft for $1.46 billion. Unlike most nations, the P-8As are not just another small part of the armed forces. New Zealand, located in a very remote part of the world has largely demilitarized since the Cold War ended in 1991. But you still have to eat and the P-8A will be more effective at finding and trackers fleets of fishing boats (mostly Chinese) poaching in New Zealand waters. With the new P-8As the Royal New Zealand Navy will be able to retire its six elderly P-3K maritime patrol aircraft. The P-3Ks had been the only combat aircraft in New Zealand since 2001 when the last combat jets were retired. In 2014 New Zealand obtained Penguin anti-ship missiles for its five SH-2 helicopters. The 370 kg (814 pounds) Penguins have a range of 55 kilometers. The New Zealand Navy consists of two frigates and six patrol boats so the four P-8As are a major addition.
This P-8A purchase includes the aircraft as well as maintenance equipment, training and support. 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. 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.
The main customer for the P-8 is the U.S. Navy, which is buying 117 of them to replace 250 P-3Cs. In addition the American navy is also buying 68 MQ-4C “Triton” UAVs. These will serve in five squadrons each with twelve of these unmanned aircraft. The MQ-4C cost $60 million each and each has a wingspan of 42.2 meters (131 feet) and is 15.5 meters (48 feet) long. Range is over 22,000 kilometers and cruising speed is 650 kilometers an hour. The MQ-4C is based on the RQ-4B Global Hawk, which entered service in 2006. At 13 tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs nearly twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful and expensive sensors, which more than double the cost of the aircraft. These "spy satellite quality" sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over 20,000 meters (62,000 feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours.
The MQ-4C is seen as the ultimate replacement for all manned maritime patrol aircraft, at least once it is equipped with more anti-submarine sensors and weapons. The P-8A will probably be the last manned naval search aircraft. Some countries are using satellite communications to put the sensor operators who staff manned patrol aircraft on the ground. Some nations propose sending aircraft like the P-3 or P-8 aloft with just their flight crews, not all the system operators and having all the other gear operated from the ground. This enables the aircraft to stay in the air longer and carry more equipment.
By 2008 the U.S. Navy had six RQ-4B UAVs available for developing modifications and upgrades needed to turn the RQ-4 into a maritime patrol aircraft.. In early 2013 the first prototype model of the MQ-4C took off and began its flight testing. The MQ-4C Triton was different in that it had additional protection against salt damage and a set of sensors optimized for monitoring water rather than land. The flight control software was also tweaked to adapt the UAV so that was better able to spend most of its time navigating across the high seas. The first production MQ-4C was delivered in late 2012. The MQ-4C is seen as the future of maritime patrol aircraft but for now most nations are replacing their P-3s with P-8s. Since 1962 757 P-3s were built and over half of them are still in service. Meanwhile New Zealand expects its new P-8As to last until the middle of the century and probably be replaced by UAVs.