The US Navy has asked Boeing to make good on a four-year-old promise to accelerate deliveries of P-8A Poseidon long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, following last December's grounding of around a quarter of its Lockheed P-3C Orions.
"We're working with the navy right now on a capacity analysis to understand what the possible rates out of the factory are," says Boeing Integrated Defense Systems P-8A programme manager Bob Feldmann. "There's a gap in capability that needs to be filled."
Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice-president P-8A Mo Yahyavi says the manufacturer believes it can build "18-24 airplanes per year" for the USN and international customers. The navy has ordered 108 aircraft for service-entry from 2013, to be delivered at a rate of 13 a year.
Boeing on 9 June achieved the power-on milestone for the first P-8A development aircraft, which is also the first 737 to be assembled on a third, ITAR-controlled moving assembly line set up at the company's factory in Renton, Washington.
In 2004, the P-8A won the USN's multi-mission maritime aircraft contract based on Boeing's lowest-priced bid, and a promise that the manufacturer could accelerate the in-service date by up to one year.
Boeing is for the first time attempting to integrate production of a military airliner derivative with its commercial assembly lines, rather than roll-out a "green" aircraft for modification. The P-8A combines the fuselage of the 737-800 with the wing of the longer -900, but its airframe is strengthened to cope with sustained g-loadings.
"Rather than building a green airplane, flying it someplace, cutting it up and trying to make it into a military aircraft, our approach is radically different on this programme," says Feldmann. "We decided to build to the navy requirements and design-in from the ground up, so that the aircraft is built with a bomb bay and all the structure, duct work and wiring in it."
The P-8A's bomb bay doors were designed by Boeing IDS in Long Beach, California, but are manufactured in St Louis and installed by 737 fuselage-supplier Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas.
"We've got a complete fuselage here with the bomb bay doors in it," says Yahyavi. "We're building a fully provisioned military aircraft in the heart of the Boeing commercial production system."
Assembly of the first test aircraft is expected to take around 90 days, compared with 10 for a commercial 737, but Boeing expects to reduce this to 45 days for production P-8As. Five development aircraft are being constructed, two of which will serve as the static- and fatigue-test articles.