In 2013, the US and Indian Navies became the first to fly Boeing’s new P-8 Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. On Thursday, the 150th Poseidon took to the skies over Puget Sound, Seattle.
In the 450,000 mishap-free hours the Poseidon has flown, it has been acknowledged as the world’s most fearsome submarine hunter. It’s list of users has grown rapidly: India has operationalised a fleet of 12 Poseidons, the US Navy has bought 112; the Royal Navy flies 9, the Australian Navy operates 12 and the Norwegian Navy has five. New Zealand will Join the list later this year, South Korea in 2023 and Germany in 2024.
“There are now 150 P-8s around the world delivering confidence and an unmatched capability to our global customers,” said Stu Voboril of P-8 Programs, Boeing. “Our focus has been, and will be, on delivering the world’s best maritime patrol aircraft.”
In 2009, the Indian Navy signed a contract for eight P-8I aircraft for US $2.1 billion, which were delivered ahead of schedule. That contract included options for four additional aircraft, for which another billion-dollar contract was signed in 2016.
The navy’s purchase of 12 P-8I aircraft for $3.1 billion, and Washington’s decision to supply them to India alongside the first deliveries to the US Navy, highlighted two major changes. First, a new readiness in Washington to sell New Delhi cutting edge weaponry without quibbling over “changing the regional arms balance.” Second, the P-8I buy demonstrated New Delhi’s willingness to spend top dollar to back its regional ambitions with top-of-the-line military capabilities.
Based in INS Rajali, a naval air station at Arakonam, near Chennai, the P-8Is – designated Indian Naval Air Squadron 312-A – fly 8-hour missions over the Indian Ocean to seek out pirates, suspicious cargo vessels, hostile warships and submarines. Its enhanced internal fuel tanks allow it to fly 1,100 kilometers to a point of interest, patrol the area for six hours, and then fly back 1,100 kilometres to Arakonam. With aerial refuelling, this range can be doubled.
The P8-I consists of advanced sensors and weaponry integrated onto a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, modified with the enhanced wings of a 737-900 that allow the carriage of weapons. It marries a tried and tested sensor and weapons suite with a specially developed Boeing 737 aircraft. Since reliability and endurance are crucial, it was logical to base the Poseidon on the world’s most widely flown airliner (a 737 lands or takes off somewhere in the world every three seconds).
The CFM-56 engines that are standard fitment on recent 737s also power the Poseidon. These are modified with larger generators that churn out the power for the MMA’s sensors and control systems. In addition, there is an auxiliary power unit that provides electricity even when the main engines are switched off.
The P-8I’s punch lies in its sophisticated sensors. A multi-mode radar picks up aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Another belly-mounted radar looks backwards, like an electronic rear-view-mirror. Any suspected threat could be investigated further: sonobuoys are dropped to zero in on suspected enemy submarines, radioing back any suspicious sounds that they pick up. A submarine would be picked up also by a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) on the P-8I’s tail.
For dealing with these threats, the Poseidon is armed to the teeth. It has 11 “hard points”, or weapons stations: two under each wing for Mark 82 depth charges or Harpoon anti-ship missiles; five stations inside the weapons bay for Mark 54 torpedoes that cannot be slung outside since they must be kept warm; and two hard points up front for combat search and rescue (SAR) equipment or for additional depth bombs.
Alternatively, the P8-I, which is data-linked with Indian submarines, can pass on the location of the enemy submarine. The Indian submarines can then zero-in on the intruder and fire torpedoes to destroy it.
US officials are optimistic that India will eventually buy 25-35 Poseidons, given the growing need for “maritime domain awareness” over the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy plays the role of regional gatekeeper.
This task was earlier performed by the Indian Navy’s Tupolev-142 Bear long-range maritime patrol aircraft that were bought from the Soviet Union in 1988. The fleet was retired in 2017.
To augment the surveillance and reconnaissance capability provided by twelve P8-Is, the navy is also proceeding with acquiring eight new Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, and a fleet of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).