The U.S. Navy is conducting a highly successful effort to replace its aging fleet of maritime patrol planes with a military version of the Boeing 737 passenger jet. The planes will perform anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare from land bases while also collecting intelligence useful to the entire joint force. The plan to use a modified version of the world’s most popular airliner was controversial at first, but now is beginning to look like a stroke of genius because the 737 is so much cheaper to build and operate than planes intended solely for military use. For instance, the 737 is easier to service overseas than most military aircraft, because it is operated by dozens of airlines around the world.
The military designation for the new 737-based maritime patrol plane is the P-8A Poseidon. Although it is still in development, Navy planners are sufficiently pleased with its progress to date that they are already considering the same airframe as the likely replacement for the secret EP-3 Aries eavesdropping plane. Like current Navy patrol planes, the EP-3 is a propeller-driven aircraft based on the old Lockheed Electra, but it has been outfitted with sensitive electronic listening devices to collect what the military calls “signals intelligence.” The Navy monitors and analyzes such intelligence in littoral regions like the Western Pacific for its own use and for exploitation by the National Security Agency.
The Navy’s plan for conducting maritime patrol missions in the future is to combine the military version of the 737 with unmanned aircraft based on the very long-range Northrop Grumman Global Hawk to fashion an integrated airborne surveillance capability around the world. It is only natural to extend that same operating concept into the signals-intelligence arena, since mission profiles are similar and money can be saved by leveraging development work already done on Poseidon and Global Hawk. However, that may just be the beginning of the story as far as 737 is concerned, because the Air Force too has aging electronic aircraft that need to be replaced.
The Air Force’s current electronic fleet consists mostly of three types of planes: the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), and the RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic-eavesdropping system. These planes, like most of the tanker fleet, are all militarized versions of the old Boeing 707 transport — an airframe that domestic airlines retired a generation ago. Aside from normal age-related maladies like metal fatigue and corrosion, the planes are also burdened with a four-engine design, which makes them less fuel-efficient than today’s twin-engine jets. If the Air Force were to leverage investments already made in the Navy patrol plane, it could replace its aging electronic fleet with a more efficient force of 737s at relatively low cost.
The logical place to start is with JSTARS, a fleet of 17 radar planes used to track and image moving ground targets such as tanks and insurgent SUVs. JSTARS is an amazingly versatile sensor platform that provides critical tactical intelligence to ground forces, but the service is reluctant to spend billions of dollars modernizing 707 airframes that were already second-hand when it first acquired them. This seems like an opportunity to take advantage of research the Navy has already funded in the P-8A program to develop a JSTARS successor based on the 737. Not only is there considerable overlap between technology used on Poseidon and that required for the JSTARS mission, but the cost of supporting the joint fleet would be reduced if both services used the same basic airframe. It sure makes more sense than sustaining a decrepit collection of Cold War planes until they start falling out of the sky.
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