The NAS Whidbey Island Open House 2016 provided a real changing of the guard type moment, with the static display of a US Navy stalwart, the Lockheed P-3C Orion side by side with its successor the Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Variants of the P-3 Orion have served the United States and many nations with pride since first introduced into the US Navy in 1962 (other major P-3 operators include Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan and also Canada with their CP-140 Aurora variant). Constantly upgraded the P-3 has been at the forefront of maritime patrol and Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) for decades. It will be sad to see the old girl go when fully replaced by the P-8A in US Navy service by 2020 (the east coast bases have already said goodbye to their P-3’s).
The P-8A Poseidon provides a state of the art jet platform to conduct long-range Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW); Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW); Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Apart from sophisticated next generation, avionics, sensors, surveillance equipment and weapons systems including an advanced multi-role radar and high-definition cameras which all provide unsurpassed processing capability (the acoustic system alone provides four times the processing capacity of the P-3), the P-8A can also control Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) to extend sensor reach even further (vital in maritime patrol missions).
The P-8A has a nine person crew (dual-pilot cockpit, five mission crew, plus a relief pilot and in-flight technician) and a versatile weapons payload of joint missiles including the AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response) and AGM-84 Harpoon; Mk. 54 torpedoes, bombs and mines which can be carried within an internal five-station rear weapons bay and on four wing pylons and two centerline pylons. In the P-3 sonobuoys are manually loaded pre-flight in underbelly launch tubes, in the P-8A there are two rather cool rotary reloadable, pneumatically controlled sonobuoy launchers within that fire them downwards from the rear fuselage.
The US Navy will acquire approximately 117 P-8A aircraft and have over 30 already in service (the first came into service in 2013). Other P-8A customers include the Royal Australian Air Force with 8 on order with the first to be delivered in 2017 and the remainder operational by 2010, plus an order for 4 more to follow was placed in March 2016 (with a potential requirement of an eventual 15 aircraft, they will operate in conjunction with 7 long-range MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles); and the Indian Navy who operate a modified version designated the P-8I Neptune (with Indian designed avionics, sensors and weapons systems), with 8 already in service and 4 more on order. Addendum: On July 11th, 2016 the UK government announced the purchase of 8 P-8A aircraft for the Royal Air Force, with the first expected to be delivered in 2019.
It was very interesting seeing the P-3 and P-8A side by side and also being able to touring the cockpits (even sit in the pilot’s seat) and workstations whilst talking with the pilots and crew was a real highlight. No sensitive equipment was actually switched on inside, so it was OK to take photos inside which was great!
The P-8A is obviously very modern inside with glass cockpit displays and workstations with universal multi-function displays. Given it is based on the commercial Boeing 737-800 airframe, it has a much more airliner feel in comparison to the old school military tech of the P-3 Orion (it’s still kind of cool walking through the beat up interior of an old Orion though).
The pilots will tell you it feels more like you are in charge with the P-3 over the highly digital flight environment of the P-8A. Either way, the future is now and that means full steam ahead with the Poseidon!