The announcement by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) on the first day of the Farnborough airshow confirming that it will purchase nine Boeing P-8A POSEIDON Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) follows hard on the heels of the news that the US Navy recently received its 42nd P-8A POSEIDON. The UK is to follow the same US specification.
The order will finally provide a replacement aircraft for the NIMROD MRA4 fleet that was cancelled and all of the aircraft unceremoniously sliced up following the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
Defence secretary Michael Fallow, who had visited the US Navy’s P-8A home base at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, FL/USS in May, said that the deal would provide, “significant protection to the UK’s nuclear deterrent and our £6 billion aircraft carriers.”
The aircraft have been purchased through a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement that was cleared by the US State Department back in March. The deal includes associated equipment, training, and support. The estimated cost of the purchase is $3.2 billion (€2.88 billion) with the POSEIDON fleet destined to be based in Scotland at RAF Lossiemouth, not far from the old NIMROD MR2’s operational base at Kinloss where flight operations ceased on 31 July 2011.
Since the demise of he NIMROD MRA4 fleet, the UK government has tried to ensure that its long reputed anti-submarine warfare skills have not been lost, through a police of personnel placements with the US Navy, the Australian and New Zealand forces as well as others. In the United States, Project Seedcorn was established at NAS Jacksonville to help train and retain the maritime patrol skills which UK flight crew had long been associated. Maintainers have also been working on the US Navy’s fleet of P-8As to ensure their skills continuity. The responsibility for this training will eventually return to Scotland once the Royal Air Force (RAF) has taken delivery of its own fleet of MPAs.
The UK government will have its nine aircraft delivered between April 2019 with the final delivery expected in early 2022. The first deliveries to the UK will be two Lot 8 production aircraft, followed by three Lot 9 aircraft and finally four Lot 10 aircraft. Boeing is currently delivering Lot 5 in the factory with the last and Lot 4 aircraft already delivered. Lot 7 was passed in January this year so is likely to go into USN aircraft in late 2018.
The P-8A POSEIDON is a multi-mission militarised version of the hugely successful Boeing 737 (the RAF version is 737-800) and will provide the UK with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW) as well as Search and Rescue capability.
The payload and weapons carried by the UK are suited to its multi-mission role. It addition to the large stock of over 120 sonobuoys (64 of which it can monitor at any moment), it can carry and deliver up to five Raytheon Mk54 anti-submarine torpedoes and up to four HARPOON anti-ship missiles.
The US Navy has contracted for 80 P-8As although it stipulated an eventual requirement for a total of 117 (although the minimum capability risk has been identified as 109 P-8As). As the main operating base and training centre for the maritime patrol mission, whether P-8As or the older P-3 ORIONs, NAS Jacksonville has one of the largest hangers ever built for the US Navy at a total of 165,000 square feet. Its runway has recently undergone strengthening which was completed this summer.
Speaking to media during a pre-Farnborough trip to NAS Jacksonville, Boeing’s Global Sales and Marketing representative Perry Yaw stated that his company had already delivered eight P-8Is to the Indian Navy and that the first of eight aircraft for the Australian Air Force was to having its mission systems installed in Seattle prior to delivery later in the year.
The P-8A is manufactured in Seattle through in-line production and is a 737-800 derivative of the 737 series. “The fuselage comes from Spirit Aerosystem in Wichita, KN. When it rolls off the production line it is a P-8A. The estimated reduction of cost of the life of the programme is around 30%,” Perry pointed out that, due to its civil aviation history, “there is a global support logistics supply base which customers can leverage around the world.” The current P-8A production rate is 18 aircraft per year. Yaw said that to date Boeing had delivered the P-8A programme $2 billion under the original cost due to efficiencies gained through in-line production.
The commander of the USN’s VP-30 training squadron, Commander Andy Miller, provided media with a tour of the Integrated Training Centre at NAS Jacksonville that incorporates ten full motion flight simulators, seven rear-operator trainers and 30 classrooms. “We conduct 70% of training events in the simulator which also now combines training scenarios to support aircraft carrier group protection sorties,” he said, adding that by the end of 2016. “We should have linked training in Florida with helicopter training and the West Coast P-8A Squadron based out of W NAS Whidbey Island in Washington state."
Lt Eric ‘Heedro’ Andrews is a training officer with VP-30. He was originally with the VP-10 Squadron (the Red Lancers) and has amassed 2,100 flying hours, of which 500 have been on the P-8A. His was the first unit to deploy to Japan. “The essence of maritime patrol is knowing who and what is where - and for all the mission systems we employ we still use hand-held photography on occasions,” he said. Perhaps one of the only drawbacks on the P-8A against the P-3 is that the all round physical visibility from the ORION is better, and as the POSEIDON is a jet the slower it flies the more nose-up attitude it has to adopt.
At Farnborough Airshow Captain Tony Rossi, the USN Program Manager PMA-290 said that the USN had conducted over 10,000 sorties totalling around 55,000 mission hours to date.
Rossi added that one of the advantages of the current mission equipped P-8A was that it had enough space and system capability to allow future expansion. With a projected 25-30 year lifetime it was to be expected that there would be equipment expansion. To allow for this he said: “There is a reserve of around 200 cubic feet inside the aircraft, a 60% power reserve and a 25% cooling reserve.” He also pointed out that the P-8A’s mission systems are based on open systems architecture should allow rapid technology insertion during its lifetime as it is developed.
NAS Jacksonville will begin operating the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C TRITON unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from 2017. Three TRITON aircraft are currently located at NAS Pax River in Maryland with training squadron VX20. It will work with the P-8As as a maritime patrol asset but has around a 20 hour endurance.
The older Lockheed P-3 ORION MPAs have a mission radius of 2,380 nautical miles (nm) although this deceases to 1346nm allowing for three hours on-station at 1,500 feet. In contrast the P-8A has over one hour longer on station and can get to its search area much master (440kts to the P-3s 340kts). The P-8A can carry nearly 50% more sonobuoys than its predecessor.
The conversion of six west coast squadrons from the P-3 to the P-8A will begin towards the end of this year with VP-4 the first to make the switch. All six of the east cost squadrons had received their P-8As by the end of April with the transition of the whole US Navy MPA force due to be completed by the end of 2019.
Andrew Drwiega, Farnborough UK and NAS Jacksonville, Florida