FARNBOROUGH, England -- Boeing Co. is pressing for international sales of the P-8 Poseidon, a maritime patrol aircraft that recently completed its first deployment overseas but still has years until it reaches full operating potential.
The world's largest aerospace company has a deal with the U.S. Navy potentially worth $35 billion to build more than 100 of the aircraft, a military version of the 737 airliner.
The value assumes a total quantity of 117 production models, though the latest figure calls for 109 planes, as the service curbed its planned fiscal 2015 purchase from to 8 jets from 16 due to budget cuts.
Boeing also has contracts to deliver as many as a dozen of the aircraft to the governments of India and Australia. The United Kingdom is rumored to be interested in buying the plane, though officials here at the Farnborough International Air Show wouldn't say whether an agreement was in the works.
"We're getting a lot more interest from customers around the world," Fred Smith, Boeing’s director of business development for mobility, surveillance and engagement, said during a briefing at the show. The Poseidon was displayed on the flight line and flew regularly at the event, one of the biggest air shows in the world.
Boeing is clearly looking at the maritime slice of the global defense market for business opportunities.
In recent years, it partnered with Bombardier to build a smaller maritime patrol aircraft, using the Challenger 605 mid-size business jet and many of the systems from the P-8 without the weapons and anti-submarine warfare technology.
"Think iPad–iPhone, where one has more capability at a different price point that's focused on the United States Navy mission," Chris Chadwick, president and chief executive officer of Boeing's defense unit, told AINonline.
Some 80 percent of the P-8 is common to a 737, "but structurally it's a very, very different aircraft," Boeing's Smith said. "As you can imagine, lots of engineering had to be done -- the loads had to be engineered up and around the weapons bay."
He added, "the aircraft was developed to last for 25 years, flying down low over the water, should it need to, and taking a very substantial beating in its operational environment."
In the Navy, the P-8 Poseidon is replacing the P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and introduced in the 1960s.
To date, Boeing has delivered 14 P-8s to the service. The first Poseidon squadron recently completed a seven-month deployment to Kadena, Japan. The crews performed low-altitude search-and-rescue missions, including helping to search for the missing Malaysian airliner.
Feedback has been positive, with personnel finding the aircraft more reliable and able to fly over a location for a longer period of time, according to Navy Capt. Scott Dillon, a former P-3 pilot who manages the Navy's P-8 acquisition program. With a range of 1,200 nautical miles, it can scan an area for as long as four hours, he said.
"The aircraft's ability to get to distant operating areas much more quickly than a P-3 and to remain on station once it gets there has also been a game-changer from the operational commander's perspective," he said during the briefing.
J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's top weapons tester, in a report this year criticized the P-8 for not being able to hunt submarines and perform other critical missions. The aircraft "is not effective for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission and is not effective for wide area anti-submarine search," the document stated.
While the Poseidon currently uses similar radar, surveillance systems and other technology as the Orion, it will change in coming years as planned, Dillon said.
"The entire program has been structured as an incremental, evolutionary acquisition program," he said. "So as excited as we are to have this first increment of capability out in the fleet and on deployment, we're also already moving on with upgrades."
The aircraft is slated to receive multi-static active coherent acoustics, automated identification system, and high-altitude weapon capability by 2016; and software improvements, anti-submarine warfare upgrades, network-enabled weapons and additional sensor enhancements by 2021, according to a briefing slide.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com