Update April 25, 2009: P-8A aircraft T-1, the first airframe, made a 3 hr 3 minute first flight today. It is scheduled to fly to Patuxent River NAS in September to begin full Navy flight testing.

Update: The P-8 is now known as the Poseidon.

The P-8 Maritime Multi-mission Aircraft, or MMA for short, is the designation for a future airplane intended to fill a particular role for the U.S. Navy. In brief, it is intended to replace the P-3 Orion aircraft (both the search/attack P-3C and the electronic surveillance E-P3E) with a new design. At present, the Navy's requirements call for an IOC of 2012 and a total buy of approximately 109 aircraft.

What would it do?

The P-8 MMA would take on the roles currently filled by the P-3 Orion. It would handle maritime search and attack roles, including sea search, long-range maritime strike, ASW, and the surveillance of both sea- and land-based targets related to Navy activities. In order to perform these missions, there are several capabilities that it must have which can be extrapolated from current requirements or garnered from Navy and contractor documentation.
  • Endurance. It must be able to undertake long flights, and to remain on station for long hours as it searches for and follows the much slower and distant ships and submarines that are its prey.
  • Carrying capacity. In addition to mission consoles, crew and crew amenities and normal flight systems, the MMA must be able to carry the fuel load required for its long flights. It must be able to carry expendables such as sonobuoys and weapons of various types.
  • Armament. The MMA must be able to deploy not only sonobuoys and other expendable sensors, it must be able to drop subsurface and surface-targeted weapons while in flight.

What will it look like?

On June 20, 2004, the U.S. Navy announced that it had selected Boeing as the primary contractor for this new aircraft. Boeing beat out rival Lockheed Martin, who had proposed a remanufacture/remodel of the existing P-3 fleet as a cost-effective option. Boeing plans to depart from the P-3 aircraft type entirely, and to base the MMA on the 737-800 aircraft - essentially, a 737-700 with a 737-900 wing (winglets for stability and increased lift) and two ten-foot fuselage extensions fore and aft of the mainspar for increased cargo volume.

Artists' renderings of the new airplane from Boeing have offered several other details. An in-flight refuelling receptacle is visible above the cockpit of the MMA. There are hardpoints under the wings; how many depends on which rendering you look at, but they are present in all visualizations. They would likely be used for lighter-weight missile arms, and perhaps sensor pods or fuel stores. For internal stores, there is a weapons bay near the aft of the aircraft that is hidden by belly doors, a la the classic 'bomb bay.' A rotary sonobuoy launcher is stashed back there, and perhaps racks for additional armaments such as the heavier Mk. 46 Torpedo.

There are additional antennae along the dorsal line of the fuselage, presumably for the additional C3I the airplane will require. Search radar is not immediately visible - there is a side-facing aperture just aft of what would be the forward crew door on a commercial 737; this may involve optical or electromagnetic sensors. However, the commercial airframe has a fairly capacious radome for civilian use, and Boeing is apparently working with the manufacturers of appropriate sea-search radars to fit them inside the existing aircraft hull shape.

Why do it this way?

There are a number of answers, some good and some bad. First off, Boeing would never be caught dead offering to remanufacture another company's product - one which has propellers, at that! The close resemblance to a commercial airframe makes life easier for Boeing, who have far less retooling to do and also enjoy the additional orders the existing line will be asked to crank out and the resulting per-unit amortization savings. For the Navy's part, having a 737-derived aircraft makes life easier in several ways. Pilots will be easier to find and retain, as reservists can more easily maintain skills in a platform close to their 'day job.' Recruitment may be easier when the skills gained are directly transferrable to the civil aviation industry. Maintenance of the aircraft will be simpler and cheaper, taking advantage of a large existing market of personnel, parts and logistics designed to support 737s around the world.

As an aside, there is a history in the airplane - the Indonesian Air Force bought three specially-modified 737s in 1982 with Motorola search radars installed, and uses them for maritime surveillance. Named the 'Surveiller,' it can detect small ships (fishing boats) up to 100 nautical miles distant.

What will it cost?

That's a good question. We don't know yet.

Will anyone else use it?

In January 2009, India ordered eight P-8I models for the Indian Navy's use.

What else?

Some general factoids. The 737 is the most successful commercial aircraft in history - there are over 5,400 of them in service, and at any given time, Boeing claims there are approximately 1,200 of them in the air around the world. The current assembly build time for a 737 is 13 days, at Boeing's Renton plant; however, this does not include large subassemblies, such as the fuselage, which is assembled in Wichita, Kansas and shipped whole to Renton. The MMA will take a bit longer, however - the estimate is that each MMA will undergo a year of conversion work at Wichita after its initial construction as a normal 737 (known as a 'green airplane').

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