Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: P-8 Production Advances; JSTARS Replacement Eyed

 - June 20, 2011, 9:15 PM

The P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft represents both a present and future market opportunity for Boeing Military Aircraft.

As the last of six P-8 test aircraft, a production representative model, advanced through mission systems installation earlier this month at Boeing Field in Seattle, the company outlined potential new applications for the 737-based platform. One is the P-8 airborne ground surveillance (AGS) variant, proposed as a replacement for the aging U.S. Air Force fleet of E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS) aircraft.

Boeing contends the P-8 AGS offers a more capable, cost-effective alternative to modernizing the 17 modified, 40-year-old 707-300 JSTARS aircraft operated by the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The four-engine E-8C burns roughly twice as much fuel per hour as the twin-engine P-8, which is based on the 737-800 airframe. With fuel delivery savings and estimated 60 percent lower operating and sustainment costs, Boeing forecasts the P-8 AGS would save $500 million a year, making a “tremendous and compelling case” for the aircraft, said Bob Feldman, Boeing vice president and general manager, Surveillance and Engagement.

“The P-8, we think, is uniquely positioned when you look at those 707s and where they need to go from both a basic airframe and avionics upgrade point of view,” Feldman said June 8, during a press briefing in Seattle before the Paris Air Show. “For the cost of doing the mods to keep those 707-based systems current, you can buy a new fleet of P-8s in the configuration that they need to be to handle that mission.”

Feldman said the P-8 is the cornerstone of Boeing’s strategy to replace the world’s P-3 Orion turboprop and 707-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

The strategy is supported by a Multi-Intelligence Operational Laboratory, known as the MOLE, operated as a technical prototyping and risk mitigation facility. New sensors are plugged into the P-8 open architecture in a lab environment and subsystems tested in form factors that would fit light and medium as well as large aircraft. “We have very aging, workhorse platforms in the 707 and the P-3, and, whether it be for maritime patrol and reconnaissance or ISR in general, those weapons systems are getting old and need to be replaced,” he said.

In the last decade, Feldman noted, Boeing leveraged its experience in developing the 707-based E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) to pursue comparable international requirements, winning 14 aircraft orders from Australia, Korea and Turkey for its 737-based AWACS platform. Developmental problems associated with integrating the Northrop Grumman Multi-Mode Electronically Scanned Array radar for the Australian Wedgetail program are “largely behind us now,” he said, with first delivery of a Korean Peace Eye aircraft planned in July.

Boeing was awarded the multi-mission maritime aircraft system development and demonstration contract in 2004 to replace the U.S. Navy’s P-3 Orion ASW aircraft. The SDD contract called for six flight-test and two ground-test aircraft. In January this year, Boeing received a $1.6 billion contract from the Navy for low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the P-8A Poseidon. The LRIP 1 contract is for six P-8As; the Navy’s overall requirement is for 117 aircraft.

The T1, T2 and T3 test aircraft have been delivered to the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland. The T4 aircraft was expected to fly at this writing, and then be handed over to the Navy. The T5 and T6 aircraft were undergoing missions systems installation and checkout at Boeing Field. The T4, T5 and T6 aircraft will be used for initial operational test and evaluation. Initial operational capability is planned for 2013.

The first and thus far only international customer for the Poseidon is India, which in 2009 contracted for eight P-8Is in a $2.1 billion transaction. Final assembly of the first aircraft has begun.

Boeing calculates an international market for the Poseidon of 75 or more aircraft, naming Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Norway and Italy as potential customers. With the P-8 and newly awarded KC-46A tanker program, “wWe have two new franchises that we believe in time will help us create market space in the international market,” said Chris Chadwick, Boeing Military Aircraft president, during a briefing in St. Louis, Missouri.

The P-8 fuselage, as with the commercial 737, is built by SpiritAeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, and sent by rail to the Boeing Commercial Airplanes factory in Renton, Washington, where the wings, empennage, engines and landing gear are added on 737 production Line 3. The aircraft is painted and undergoes a functional test flight before delivery to Building 1401, known as the Thompson site, at Boeing Field for mission systems installation and checkout.

Boeing trumpets this “in-line production” process for manufacturing the P-8, however, the possible reengining of the commercial 737, powered by CFM56 turbofans, to compete against Airbus’s A320neo creates a quandary for the Poseidon. Asked if the P-8 could be produced alongside a reengined 737, Chuck Dabundo, P-8 program vice president, said, “Iit’s a possibility…I think at the end of the day, the P-8 options are going to be, do we want to jump on the new engine train if that’s where the commercial market takes 737, or do we want to stick with the current engine?”