Navy P-8 to Replace the P-3? Don’t Count on It


26 September 2008

The P-8A, a Boeing 737-800 ERX that is the replacement for the P-3C, is becoming increasingly less cost effective and affordable. If any are built for the fleet, the total number is likely to be far below the official goal of 108 aircraft.

The P-3 fleet is disintegrating from overuse at such a high rate that Navy squadrons no longer “own” their own airplanes – what was typically nine aircraft. Instead, all flyable P-3s now belong to the Wing and are “loaned” to squadron aircrews on a mission-by-mission basis. From 288 flyable P-3Cs in 2003, the Navy has less than 100. The P-3 fleet has been aged prematurely by the shift away from ASW to overuse in overland surveillance and weapons delivery since 1991. Ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan love the Orion’s ability to loiter over a battle area for 8-10 hours, providing real-time visual and electronic surveillance.

A number of factors make it likely that the 108 aircraft goal is becoming unrealistic. One is cost. When the P-8A development and manufacturing costs are fully amortized, each P-8A will cost approximately $416M in 2004 dollars. Remember, the Navy has to buy ships, whose costs are rising at staggering rates. The Littoral Combat Ship, the Navy’s answer to coastal, “brown water” fighting, has had two of the first four ships canceled for 100% cost overruns. The goal of 55 LCSes is in serious doubt. The just canceled DDG-1000 saw its price per hull exceed $3B, triggering a Congressional revolt and ending what was to have been at least seven ships to just two “technology demonstrators,” a la the Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarines. CVN-X, the follow-on to the Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, is in limbo with the Navy saying little about its future. CGN-X, the follow-on to the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, also looks doomed. Building of the Burke-class guided missile destroyer will, instead, be extended for an undetermined number of additional ships with enhanced capabilities and major upgrades of onboard sensors and greatly increased electrical generation capabilities for new weapons and much more powerful radars. The Navy Program Executive Officers for the various new ship classes has been repeatedly shaken-up in the past several years, with multiple firings of high-level Navy and civilian personnel. Forty-five billion dollars for 108 P-8As seems increasingly undoable.

The other half of the P-8 plan to replace the P-3 is the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned vehicle program. While the Navy has been struggling with this, too, for years, it looks like the RQ-4 Maritime Global Hawk UAV/UCAV will be chosen. At $123M a copy (including development costs) it isn’t cheap, but it has many attractive features. One is the lower cost than the P-8. Another is not having to carry a crew for which the Navy has to pay a small fortune in training and support. Another is the ever greater capability of unmanned systems, which, like computers, double their capability for the same price every eighteen months. The RQ-4 can fly for 24 hours or more, affording unmatched persistent surveillance capability. Yet another is avoiding the loss of personnel in any combat situation – something an ever more militarily ignorant citizenry demands of its armed forces. Arming the RQ-4s becomes even more attractive when one considers as well the recent arrival of mini-sonobouys that may be dropped and monitored from the UCAV as well. .

The P-8 program is going to be scaled-back in favor of increasing the responsibility and perhaps the numbers of the BAMS program. The P-8s are to be based at two CONUS sites – NAS Whidbey Island, WA, and NAS Jacksonville, FL, plus a detachment at MCAS Kaneohe, Hawaii. The Pacific and Atlantic wings will probably have a dozen P-8s each, with the Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Jacksonville signing for another 18 or so. That makes 42. The Hawaiian detachment may borrow from the Pacific wing, or may have as many as another six aircraft basically based at Kaneohe. That’s 48. Add some wiggle room and as many as 60 P-8s may be built, although that’s unlikely. That’s all we’ll have, plus as many RQ-4s as can be pried-away from the USAF.

One has to understand a little about anti-submarine warfare for this scenario to make sense. There are basically three kinds of ASW: detection, tracking, and localization/attack. Detection is done any number of ways. For the maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), it’s usually done at altitude using sonobouys, either based upon intelligence or upon detection by some other asset. This is easy on the airframe because higher-level flight is usually smooth and more aggressive high-G maneuvers are rare. Passive tracking (using the target’s noise and not generating any yourself) of a located target can also be relatively sedate and again, at a higher altitude. Things get hairy during localization for an attack. For this the P-3 uses active sonobouys that “ping” to provide a distance and bearing to the target, which now knows you are there and begins high-speed evasive maneuvering. The P-3 also uses magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) to provide an “on top” mark from the sub’s steel hull. This is low-level, yanking and banking flight that puts the aircraft through a lot of relatively high-G stuff as a result of steep turns and low-level turbulence, which really wears on both the airframe and crew (see Romancing Julie.) The Navy is trying to extend the life of its remaining p-3s as much as possible by minimizing low-altitude flight. One step has been to create a kit that turns the P-3’s Mk 54 torpedo into a glide bomb that may be launched from altitude. The P-8 is being designed without MAD, a clear nod to minimizing low-altitude flight, both for airframe ease and limiting a target’s chances of detecting a tracking airplane.

The Navy has funding for the first five P-8s. Three are for ground testing and two are to fly, the first in 2009. The P-3s are being re-winged, a plan to extend their airworthiness until replaced by the P-8 beginning in 2012/2013. What the MPA world will look like by then – not to mention the Navy and its budget – cannot yet be accurately foretold. All MPA flight may be transferred to UCAVs, as is the trend for all tactical flight in the US military. The Lockheed P-3 line has been reopened to provide new wings for the P-3 fleet. How long before someone at Lockheed pitches producing entirely new Orion-21s, or even the P-7? Lockheed did so before it lost out to the Boeing version MMA. What is known is that we are entering as dangerous a period to our national security as any since the 1930s.

Return to The Nav Log