The defense industry is too often unfairly characterized as the gang that can’t shoot straight. The press loves to report cost overruns, program delays and technical problems. What does not get reported much is the overwhelming number of companies that are doing great work and all the programs that are on schedule and on cost.
A great example of a good program that is providing enormous value for the U.S. military is the P-8 Poseidon. The P-8 is nominally the replacement for the venerable P-3 Orion as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. But it is much more than that. With its integrated suite of sensors, advanced avionics, large payload, power generation capability and ability to carry a wide range of munitions and other payloads, the Poseidon will also make a major contribution to the U.S. Navy’s future anti-surface warfare and signals intelligence operations. In fact, Navy sources describe the Poseidon as a true “game changer.” From the start, the Navy planned also to team the P-8 with its MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance unmanned aerial system thereby further expanding the service’s ability to surveil vast swathes of the world’s oceans.
What is remarkable is that this warplane is a derivative of the Boeing commercial passenger plane, the 737-800 ER. It is powered by a variant of the same engine, the CFM-56, which powers the large international fleet of B-737s. The Navy’s aircraft start their life on the same production line as commercial 737-800s and are only diverted to a specialized production line when unique military capabilities begin to be added. By using a commercial production line and applying commercial best practices in manufacturing, supply chain management and testing, Boeing has been able to devise new ways of managing the workflow and reducing the number of days required to move the aircraft through the production line. This has both sped up the delivery process and reduced the cost of the P-8.
What is even more remarkable is that the P-8 program has hit every one of its contractual milestones. When it was awarded the development contract for the Poseidon in 2004, Boeing committed to a first flight in 2009 and to meeting the Navy’s requirement to field an initial operating capability by 2013; and it hit these marks. Navy Patrol Squadron-16 recently completed the first operational deployment to Japan of a P-8 equipped unit and a second squadron is currently deployed in the Western Pacific.
The Navy was smart to plan the Poseidon program as a series of steps or increments. This allowed both the service and the Boeing team to cut their teeth on a basic model with more advanced capabilities to follow. The digital mission systems architecture allows for the integration of information from five sensors currently aboard the P-8 as well as the addition of new sensors and off-board information flows from the Triton and other sources. The P-8 is designed for growth with a 60 percent margin in power and 25 percent in cooling. There is lots of free space to add sensors and weapons. In fact, the next increment, which should start down the production line in a couple of years, will add a magnetic anomaly detector, an automatic target ID system and a high-altitude weapons delivery capability. Later increments will deploy as-yet unimagined capabilities.
Today the Poseidon is in full rate production. The Navy has contracted for 53 aircraft and intends to acquire a total of 117. India has ordered 12 P-8s with another possible 16 to come. Australia just announced their decision to acquire eight of the aircraft. This is the right aircraft for the Asia-Pacific pivot.
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