In a decision that surprised many and puzzled more, on 14 June the US Navy announced that Boeing was the winner of the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft contract. The MMA --along with the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UCAV yet to be designed – is the Navy's professed answer to airborne anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare for the first half of the 21st century.
Lockheed, which built all of the P-3 aircraft used by the Navy since 1962, had proposed an enhanced version dubbed Orion21. However, Lockheed never built a prototype for demonstration and never even offered a detailed artist's rendition of what the airplane would look like. Boeing barnstormed a 737-700 to give US Navy pilots around the world a chance to see how the aircraft would perform in typical ASW configurations and altitudes. The last time Lockheed had proposed an enhanced P-3 was in the late 1980s, with the P-7. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union at that time saw the simultaneous collapse of interest in such an aircraft whose main purpose had been to search for and track Soviet submarines.
The 737 seems to many to be unsuitable for such a role. It is larger and heavier than the P-3 or P-7. A jet, it burns far more fuel at low altitude than a turboprop, and anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare at times keep an airplane within several hundred feet of the water. Its two engines do not offer the redundancy of the four carried by the P-3 or Orion21, and when you are 1,500 miles from the closest suitable airfield, at night, and just several hundred feet above the water, suddenly having to keep flying and get home on just one engine definitely pegs an aircrew's puckerometer. There are a number of other unresolved issues as well, including how Boeing proposes to put a bomb bay and other mission-specific elements into a 737.
Still smarting from the loss of the Joint Strike Fighter contract, Lockheed may be in a far better position to get the contract for the Aerial Common Sensor program. And for political reasons and preservation of an industrial base capable of producing such big iron as the MMA, it may make sense to award Boeing the MMA.
The follow-up Boeing news conference added some interesting tidbits:
A Boeing spokesman said it won, in part, because "the 737 is expandable and has an installed commercial industrial base in what is clearly the jet age," a swipe at the turboprop-driven Lockheed entry, despite a truboprop’s advantages, as noted above. Boeing sees the MMA win as taking some of the sting out of the JSF loss, with MMA adding about 1,500 jobs in US, including 200 in St.Louis, plus others in Seattle and Wichita. Compared to P-3, Boeing said that the 737 derivative offers the latest in digital technology, in training, and in documentation. One confused spokesman noted that the Boeing MMA is better because it will be able to carry weapons both externally and internally, something the Lockheed P-2 and P-3 had been doing since 1944. News conference spokesmen also hyped the 737's high reliability record, and no reporter present countered with the fact that the MMA will be essentially an entirely different aircraft. Boeing also announced that its MMA will "leap two generations in ASW technology," especially in the acoustic sensor systems they already produce. Again unremarked was the fact that 21st century ASW against silent fourth generation diesel-electric boats will almost certainly not rely upon passive acoustic detection.
Boeing hopes to put behind it its recent troubles with the government and intends to research the large but fluid worldwide maritime patrol aircraft market, noting the large, if undefined, MPA market world wide.
When asked how Boeing, the presumed under dog until the last minute, won the bid, Boeing said that it thought that its promise to abide by an accelerated delivery schedule may have made the difference in winning the bid. This was news to most attending the conference, and implies that the Navy's P-3 fleet is in even worse shape than previously believed. The Navy had recently announced the premature retirement of 40% of its P-3 fleet because of major airframe issues. Boeing told the Navy in the weeks coming up to the MMA decision that it would meet an accelerated delivery schedule that cut one year off the 2012-2014 delivery time for the first aircraft. How Boeing plans to do this was ill explained, except to say that they plan to do more work at each stage of construction, thus eliminating the number of times an airplane has to be moved somewhere else for another step in its building. However, they also admitted that increased security concerns regarding the workforce could produce delays not yet quantified.
The $3.9 billion contract won yesterday by Boeing is a cost-plus-award-fee contract for the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase of the MMA acquisition program. The potential value of building all the planned 108 MMA aircraft over the next 20-30 years is approximately $23 billion. – K.B. Sherman
The Boeing 737-MMA attacks a sub in artist's sketch