The P-8: The Adventure Continues

The US Navy continues to insist that it will build 108 P-8A aircraft to replace its dwindling fleet of P-3C Orions despite doubts by some analysts about its full funding through 2019 (initially, 155 P-8s had been envisioned to replace the Navy’s P-3C fleet which had numbered about 288 until recently).

International involvement in development of the P-8A has been a tentative affair. Italy, Canada, and Australia all indicated initial interest. However, over the past several years, as costs escalated and our allies diverted more and more of their military budget to domestic social programs, co-funding by other countries pretty much dried up despite Boeing’s initial offer to let allied nations participate in the P-8’s development and design for a contribution of about $800 million each. Now, talk of an international “P-8i” restarts a possible cash influx into the program to create the new aircraft from the Boeing 737-800EX. At the recent Farnborough Air Show, Boeing and Navy representatives noted that upcoming "spiral development phases" of the P-8 might include production offset agreements, user-supplied mission payloads, and other types of international customer participation.

The story of the P-8 is full of twists and turns. There were initially to have been an additional 50 or so P-8 ELINT variants to replace the EP-3E. Then, DOD decided that it made more sense to combine the Navy’s SIGINT and ELINT missions with the Army’s, so the ELINT P-8 was dropped. Instead, the Embrauer RJ-145 was tentatively chosen to replace both the Navy’s EP-3E and the Army’s Guardrail and Aerial Common Sensor aircraft. Unfortunately, once the Army and Navy tried to pack all the crew and equipment required into the 145 it was discovered that not only would the aircraft be taxed to lift everything and actually fly, but the engines’ generators would be unable to produce either the required electric power or the required air-conditioning. Back to the drawing boards.

Complicating the picture further has been the Navy’s Persistent Unmanned Aerial Surveillance Program (PUMAS). As of the fall of 2005, the Navy was looking at upgradeable unmanned systems to conduct persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission to serve to multiply the capabilities and ocean coverage of the P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA). Such a UAV – developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Program (BAMS) -- had been announced along with the MMA Program at its inception, although the PUMAS acronym had not yet been announced. Last fall the Naval Air Systems Command awarded four contracts for PUMAS to provide upgradeable unmanned persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The vendors chosen for this first phase were Boeing (St. Louis, MO); General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems (Dayton, OH); Lockheed Martin (Eagan, MN); and Northrop Grumman (Bethpage, NY). Each of the contracts awarded for this initial phase was valued at around $1 million. This first phase of the PUMAS program was to run until August, 2006, ending with the creation of performance metrics.

As of this date PUMAS remains the program of record for Navy UAV development. By the fall of 2006, a draft request for proposals (RFP) is expected, with a final RFP in January 2007. While not yet defined, it is expected that several varieties of a PUMAS UAV will be developed. While BAMS is being developed primarily for anti-submarine warfare, requiring a low-level, high-endurance aircraft, another BAMS variant is expected to be a high-altitude, fast-mover for other duties.

Boeing’s recent noting that it believes there to be a potential overseas P-8 market of 100 aircraft for allies now flying the P-3C is probably welcome by those looking for a replacement for these tired airplanes. According to reports, such potential overseas buyers include not only Italy, Canada, and Australia, but Chile, Argentina, Portugal, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Norway, Greece, Pakistan, Thailand, New Zealand, and The Netherlands (although Holland just very publicly sold its last P-3 aircraft to Germany as part of Holland’s basically unilaterally disarming itself to spend most of its money on more social programs).

(1-AUG-2006)

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