Australia has international legal responsibility for the 3rd largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world – which equates to 8,148,250 square kilometres of ocean. As an island nation, Australia is highly dependent upon its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) for trade and defence and they need to be monitored and protected. This role is currently carried out in part by the 18 AP3-CII Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft – upgrades P3Cs – of the Royal Australian Air Force. However, they are reaching the end of their operational lives and they will be replaced toward the end of the decade.

Replacing the AP-3C.

Under Project AIR 7000 Phase 2B the Boeing P-8A Poseidon is the preferred aircraft of choice for the Royal Australian Air Force – pending Government approval. Their role will be to assist with providing a modern aerial capability for controlling and defending Australia’s maritime zone of responsibly. It is expected that up to 8 airframes will be acquired, with deliveries from 2016 onward. The last AP-3C is scheduled to be retired in 2018 after providing 30 years of almost continuous service.

This life-of-type for the RAAF AP-3C replacement is being driven by the increasing cost of meeting airframe fatigue and corrosion, aircraft system supportability, and mission system obsolescence concerns. The airframe and aircraft systems, including engines, hydraulics, electrical and fuel systems have become more costly to support as the aircraft continues to age. Mission system obsolescence concerns are to be addressed under Project AIR 5276, though a further upgrade may be required to extend their useful life. Time over seawater coupled with extensive use has seen much of the life of these airframes move towards expiry more rapidly than hoped for. This necessitates a modern manned replacement – particularly with the emergence of new regional surface and sub surface threats.

Regionally, new Blue Water navies are emerging with substantial military capabilities. China and India in particular are achieving long distance sustained deployments into zones where they previously had limited reach. These emerging capabilities include modern submarine types – both nuclear powered and sophisticated conventional designs.

The ballistic or ‘boomer’ type submarines of the Cold War saw the deployment of extensive screening and detection systems – one of which was the original Orion P3C family. Today, Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) not only need to undertake Blue Water, open ocean anti surface warfare (ASuW) and anti subsurface warfare (ASW), but their missions now include counter-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster relief. Technological developments mean they are now expected to provide surveillance over land – including Afghanistan – and to operate within the clutter of littoral regions where land and sea meet.

The P-8A Manned Maritime Aircraft (MMA)

Over 734 P-3 Orions have been built since the 1960s and are used by 18 different nations militarily, and in addition by a number of government and scientific organisations. By 2012 they will have served for 50 continuous years with its original customer, the United States Navy. However, due to the increasing cost of addressing issues of airframe fatigue, corrosion, and various support and mission systems the aircraft are clearly reaching the end of their realistic usable lives. For Australia, weighing up the costs of keeping the aircraft in service or joining a US program, the answer is clear. Purchasing the successor aircraft in the form of the P-8A and plugging into the USN support program will provide a more effective reliable aircraft, both in terms of economy and capability.

Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, builds all P-8 fuselage sections, which are then shipped to Boeing in Renton, Washington, where final assembly is completed on a dedicated P-8 production line. This is exactly the same method used for the commercial 737 series, on which the Poseidon is based.

Utilizing an “industry first” in-line production process has allowed a more affordable and efficient assembly process than the previous approach of taking a green aircraft after final assembly and incorporating extensive and expensive modifications. This process is viewed as a whole new way of manufacturing military derivatives. The structure of the P-8 is very different even though it is similar in appearance to that of a commercial B737 airframe and physically more in-line with a stretched B737- 800 combined with B737- 900 wings and B767- 400ER raked winglets. The skin of the P-8 in some places is twice as thick as found on a standard B737 commercial airliner. This is because the weight of keel-mounted weapons, which would break the back of a commercial aircraft and the use of different wings comes about because of the need to mount air launched weapons.

Programme schedule

The USN has already invested US$5 billion into the program and given its present progress this means that international customers are unlikely to be required to invest in the funding of the aircrafts’ development. The USN is set to acquire 117 airframes and Boeing believes that the program record – combined with the strengths of the platform and its systems – will drive international sales for the next decade. Currently, there are three flight-test aircraft in operation and the program will begin Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) of USN aircraft in early 2011. The next program major milestone to be achieved is the start of final assembly of the first P-8I, with its first flight to occur by the end of 2011.

Delivery of an Initial Operational Capability for the USN is on track – which translates into the first Squadron being deployed by 2013. Airframe S1, the USN program’s static test “no flying” aircraft completed its developmental program in December 2010 and has supported the first flying aircraft T1. S2, the program’s fatigue testbed aircraft, will begin its ground trials in 2011 and will ultimately complete two “lifetimes” of testing. T1, the airworthiness test plane, will fly bare-boned; T2 is the primary mission systems test article; and T3 is the mission system and weapon certification aircraft.

The three flight test planes are at currently based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, while S1 and S2 ground testing occurs in Renton, Washington State. The P-8 incorporates an open mission systems architecture with 5 operator consoles – however it is wired for an additional console to bring the total number to 6. Given that these airframes are expected to operate for 25+ years the aircraft have growth potential – which provides flexibility and the ability to embrace yet unknown technologies of the future. Each individual console provides for the operation of all sensors and weapons – a benefit of the open architecture design.

International sales.

As mentioned, India is the first international customer for the P-8 and the new aircraft are replacing eight Soviet vintage Tupolev 142M propeller-driven Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft. The Indian Navy is set to acquire 8 aircraft with an option of up to 4 more. Unique Indian requirements include an aft-mounted radar and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) – something which has been deleted from USN program. Some indigenous systems will be supplied by India as Government Furnished Equipment – such as the Data Link II and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) from indigenous supplier Bharat Electronics Limited.

An international export version of the Raytheon AN/APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar will provide an all weather, day and night capability for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission support. The APY -10 is a modern derivative of Raytheon’s AN/APS-137B(V) 5 radar which is found on many international upgrade programmes aiming to improve anti-surface warfare. Compared with the legacy AN/APS-137, the AN/APY-10 reduces the need for seven onboard Weapons Replaceable Assemblies to just five on the P-8, and reduces the overall weight from 600 pounds to just 386 pounds, combined with a reduced overall demand for power. The Mean Time Between Failure for the new radar is estimated to be four to five times better than the earlier AN/AP-137.

The P-8A Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system is provided by Northrop Grumman and is a derivative of AN/ALQ-218(V)2 that is currently used in the EA-18G Growler – itself a variant of the FA-18E/F Super Hornet. It is based on an array of fixed interferometer antennae combined with another antenna array mounted on a spinning pedestal. Northrop Grumman say this ESM system provides a rapidly updated situational picture, electronic intelligence and the rapid geo-location of targets.

The Poseidon shares onboard sensor information and the Common Relevant Operational Picture (CROP) gathered from naval battle groups across the entire crew. Tactical workstations are connected by an Ethernet data bus and video network. Sensor and navigation data travels via a Mil-Std-1553B bus. The P-8 will be equipped with UHF, SATCOM and HF radios to send and receive information. Inmarsat, LINK 16 and Common Data Link (CDL) capability are all part of the baseline design. In the future the Increment 3 updrade intends to add a robust SIPRNet capability in order to send tactical plots or other data to Navy Tactical Operations Centers (TOC) ashore and also to the US Global Information Grid.

The Australian situation.

Given that the Australian Defence Force and the Defence Material Organisation are keenly risk adverse and wish to avoid block obsolesce – or have systems and platforms that in time become orphans (such as the F-111s) – it has become the norm to embrace what are known as ongoing spiral upgrades. These are now part of the initial purchase agreement to providing ongoing support, especially for US equipment.

Australia will be part of this process with spiral upgrades also known as Increments – occurring on a regular basis. Therefore, Spiral 1 is now known as Increment 2. Increment 2 has seen RAAF members assisting in and collaborating with the USN program development. Australia has signed an agreement with the USN to eventually obtain the USN configuration and to be a partner for technology increments (not upgrades). Australia, by making an early financial commitment to the program, has some influence on the overall technical direction that will be followed.

The aircraft is equipped with the Universal Air Refuelable Receptacle Slipway – UARSSI – which means it can be refueled from a variety of platforms, including the RAAF’s new KC-30, RAF KC-45, and the KC-135. While the air-to-air refueling capability was not a requirement of the USN, the fact that it is incorporated allows the P-8 to remain in the air for 20 hours or more. Unrefueled, the P-8 can fly on a typical mission for 1200 miles, remain 4 hours on station and return to base. The 180 kilowatt generators on both engines are designed for growth and are currently can produce more power than needed – providing growth potential for the inclusion of future systems.

The twin CFM 56-7B27 engines of the P-8 are the same as standard B737 commercial aircraft, allowing a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) approach to support and future development. Overall, 80% of the aircraft is common with a commercial B737, including making use of the Boeing 737 NG commercial airliner cockpit and hydraulics.

The P-8 has been designed to carry 9 weapons in total. This consists of 5 in the internal weapons bay, with two on each wing. There are also two additional centreline stations for future use. Weapons are expected to include the AGM-84H Stand Off Land Attack Missile – Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) – and the MK 54 torpedo. The AGM-84 Block II Harpoon is available for international customers, providing an anti ship capability – however it is not planned to equip USN airframes. The weapons bay of the aircraft potentially provides for the carriage of additional torpedos or alternative weapons such as depth charges and sea mines. BAE Systems provides the countermeasures dispenser system with the Smith Aerospace’s Flight and Stores (or Weapons) Management System.

For self-defence the Poseidon employs a Directional Infrared Counter Measure system (DIRCM), coupled with Missile Approach Warning (MAW), and chaff and flare dispensing systems. The aircraft has adopted an open architecture software approach and is STANAG compliant. International customers have an option to include an air sea rescue kit for Search And Rescue (SAR) operations if desired – though this is not a requirement of the USN.

The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) contract.

The P-8A has been designed to work as part of the US Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMs) project, which includes a number of other assets – including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Australia under Project AIR7000 Phase 1B seeks to acquire up to seven large, high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs to supplement the manned maritime patrol aircraft. Because The Global Hawk has been selected for BAMS, the expectation is that it will be logical for reasons of cost, risk, commonality and sheer common sense for Australia to go down the same path.

One of the recent success of the Australian Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) project has been to demonstarte the airborne Level 2 control of ScanEagle UAVs. Similarly, the systems on the P-8A are designed to receive data from any USN UAV with Level 2 control at the time of Initial Operational Capability . Due to its open architecture it will be capable of providing Level 4 connectivity in the future if required.

STANAG 4586 defines UAV interoperability at Level 4 to include the control and monitoring of the UAV, with the exception of the launch and recovery phases. While there already are UAVs on the market that could be launched from the Poseidon, it is expected that most designes will be launched and recoverd from land, or from surface ships. However, air launch is a possibility and one such system is the MagEagle Compressed Carriage (MECC) UAV, which is based upon the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle .

The MagEagle Compressed Carriage will potentially be carried in aerodynamic canisters under the Poseidon’s wing or internally in the bomb bay, and at the end of the mission will be recovered bys ship or return to land bases. Magnetometer-equipped, it passively seeks out the electronic noise associated with distortions in the earth’s magnetic field caused by submarines and other metallic objects. While the US Navy’s P-3Cs have a Magnetic Anomaly Director, the P-8As will not. The requirement was deleted from the program to save weight and drag, as the USN argues that future sonobuoy acoustics would be sufficient to locate and track submarines. Therefore systems such as the air-launched MagEagle would fill any gap, providing the capability to follow submerged submarines for up to 24 hours. The MagEagle Compressed Carriage UAV is a Boeing project not at this stage a USN-sponsored requirement.


The MECC potentially supports the USN’s high-altitude Anti Submarine Warfare Concept of Operations (CONOPS), which is being developed to allow aircraft to perform many missions simultaneously at various altitudes to detect, track and attack submarines. This strategy reduces fuel burn and extends airframe life. In line with this CONOPS, Lockheed Martin has developed the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapons Concept (HAAWC) wing kit for the MK54 torpedo to allow launch from high altitude. Potentially HAAWC could also be used to sow sonobuoy patterns at standoff ranges. The HAAWC employs a modified Lockheed Martin LongShot Wing Adapter Kit on the MK54 to allow the launch of torpedoes from high altitudes and long standoff ranges.

This system permits P-8A aircrews to launch from outside the range of enemy air defenses – an important feature as submarines are beginning to be equipped with countermeasure systems designed to shoot down aircraft. HAAWC is a low-cost, self-contained wing adaptor kit that provides range extension and autonomous guidance to a family of existing air-to-surface munitions. It is claimed that no aircraft modification is required to deploy HAAWC-equipped munitions. The system is completely self-contained, including a flight control computer, a GPS-based navigation system and power source.

In 2009 the Australian Department of Defence signed an agreement with the US Department of Defence to join a cooperative partnership for the development of follow-on capabilities to be added to the Poseidon after it enters the USN fleet in 2013.

Industry participation.

Australian industry participation is somewhat limited at this point given it is a USN and Boeing program. However, opportunities within Phase 2B are most likely to be related to the integration of the ground mission support system to the Defence Information Environment; and sub-contractor support and supply of components for the Maritime Patrol and Response Aircraft program. Opportunities could be expected to include the provision of though-life support for the Australia P-8A fleet and also support for visiting United States Navy P-8A on an as-requested basis.

It is believed that some Australian AP-3CIIs have been fitted with SIGNIT/ELINT capabilities not found on USN Orion’s – however no official indication has been given that RAAF P-8As would deviate in design or configuration from those of the USN. Nevertheless, the open architecture of the P-8 means that any systems can be later added – including presumably the MU90 lightweight torpedo selected by Australia a decade ago.

Provision has been made for additional weight, space, power, cooling and mission systems growth, theoretically permitting the inclusion of EP-3E Aries II SIGINT/ELINT type capabilities. The US Department of Defence, until recently, was seeking a replacement for Aries aircraft that is based upon the same airframe as the Orion. Potentially, a combination of these capabilities could be envisaged on a P-8 – maximising airframe use and expanding capabilities.


Unlike so many international projects, the P-8A Poseidon program is one that is on time, on budget, embracing cutting edge technology and appears set to provide a lethal operational capability both now and for a long time into the future. This is not a moment too soon as a wide number of Asian regional tensions continue to flare, driving submarine procurements by a wide number of navies. A multi-billion dollar undersea arms race has been gathering momentum for some time as established powers and smaller nations rush to build or purchase highly capable submarines.

Australia is not immune from this trend, with Project SEA1000 seeking 12 submarines to replace the six Collins boats by 2025. Current trends suggest that the new dynamics of submarine proliferation threaten to draw out some of the worst characteristics of the Cold War arms race as well as creating certain new and possibly even more dangerous threats. Potentially the most troubling of all developments is the fact that many of the major submarine purchasers and builders such as China, India, Israel and Pakistan are situated in regions of concern and some – or all – possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In addition the surface threat is hardly diminishing and the capabilities included in the P-8A acknowledge that this is also an area of concern.

Modern Maritime Patrol Aircraft are required to be versatile with an array of systems capable of providing timely and flexible options. Aside from prosecuting traditional ASW and ASuW missions, they are involved in many diverse operations such as the War on Terror, anti piracy, anti-drugs and human trafficking operations, Littoral warfare, ELINT/SIGINT, land mapping and surveillance. In addition, there is increasing collaboration with civilian agencies such as those charged with search and rescue, fisheries and ecological management. The Poseidon P-8A is more than likely to live up to its ancient Hellenic namesake’s reputation and will prove to be an advance highly capable 21st Century weapons system.

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