The US Navy is set to start operational testing of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft this summer.
"What we're looking forward to this year, really, is our initial operational test and evaluation of the programme," says Capt Aaron Rondeau, the USN's Poseidon programme manager.
Those formal operational tests will start this summer and should take about six months, but could run through to the end of the year. There have already been some operational evaluation activities that have been completed, thanks to the integration of the developmental and operational test teams. Should that all go according to plan, the P-8 will be declared operational in the third quarter of 2013.
Once the fleet starts transitioning to the new jet, operational squadrons will convert over to the Poseidon every six months with Increment 1 aircraft.
The Increment 1 capability on the P-8 will be an improved version of what is on the USN's upgraded Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, which the Poseidon will replace. However, there are a host of improvements that are planed for the new Boeing 737-based jet.
The first major upgrade will be Increment 2, but that effort has been split into two parts, says Boeing's P-8 business development director David Robinson. The incremental upgrade is being developed with Australian participation.
The first part of that effort is to equip the aircraft with a new Multi-static Active Coherent (MAC) system, which has been accelerated to be fielded in fiscal year 2014. That will enable the fast, high-flying aircraft to search for enemy submarines over a much larger area with a network of active and passive sonar buoys.
"The major focus is on the anti-submarine warfare," Robinson says. "MAC is a major portion of Increment 2."
The other part of the Increment 2 upgrade includes the Automatic Identification System, which would allow the P-8 to read ships' transponders, plus a new computer architecture to rapidly add new capabilities, a new tactical operations centre (TOC), and a high-altitude anti-submarine warfare (ASW) system.
The high-altitude ASW system, which is a collection of sonar buoys, would enable the P-8 to take a closer look at "areas of interest" generated by the MAC, Robinson says. "You'd be able do both [MAC and high-altitude ASW] at the same time," he says.
The TOC would allow a Northrop Grumman MQ-4 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned air system aircraft to coordinate seamlessly with the P-8, and would allow the Poseidon to better manage its various ASW activities and sensors. Those capabilities should become operational around FY2015.
A follow-on Increment 3 capability has not yet been fully defined, but will include the ability to have some level of control of the BAMS aircraft, Rondeau says. It would also have further architecture improvements to allow for roll-on/roll-off capabilities that might enable the jet to take over certain intelligence-gathering missions currently assigned to the USN's Lockheed EP-3 Aries, he adds. It would also have a new high-altitude ASW weapon and a new "digital, net-ready" anti-surface ship weapon that would improve upon on the existing Harpoon missile.
It might also incorporate J-series inertially-guided satellite-correct weapons and the advanced airborne sensor littoral surveillance radar.