Inside a spotless hangar here, technicians work on three gleaming new Boeing 737s, painted in the drab grey favoured by the world’s navies. While two of these are marked with the US Navy logo, the third bears markings unusual for this hangar: the Indian Navy’s Devanagari logo: ‘Nau Sena’ (Navy).
These are no ordinary 737s but new P-8 multi-mission aircraft (MMA) that watch over enormous tracts of sea, detecting hostile ships and submarines with electronic sensors, and quickly destroying these with the weaponry on board.
Unprecedentedly, these state-of-the-art platforms will join service almost simultaneously with the US and Indian navies, giving the latter world-class capabilities for dominating the waters and vital shipping lanes off its 7,500 kilometre coastline, deep into the Indian Ocean.
Since independence, India has remained content with older weaponry that richer and more technologically advanced countries had already deployed for years. The Indian Air Force (IAF) bought the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 fighters long after they entered frontline service with the French and British air forces, while the Sukhoi-30 MKI and the T-90 tank were systems that the Russians did not induct.
But the navy’s purchase in 2009 of eight P-8 aircraft for a whopping US $2.1 billion, and Washington’s decision to supply these to India alongside the first deliveries to the US Navy, highlight two major changes.
First, Washington’s readiness to sell New Delhi cutting-edge weaponry without tiresome quibbling over “changing the regional arms balance.” Second, the P-8 buy demonstrated New Delhi’s willingness to spend its top dollar to back regional ambitions with top-flight military capabilities.
New Delhi again demonstrated that buying power last year by shucking up $4.1 billion for 10 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. These giant airlifters, which can land and take off from short, high-altitude, mud airstrips along the Himalayan Sino-Indian border, will let the Indian Army quickly reinforce threatened sectors.
For Boeing Defence, Space and Security (BDS), the company’s military division which stares at US defence cuts of a trillion dollars over the coming decade, New Delhi is an increasingly important customer.
Boeing’s international defence sales, which currently account for 22-24 per cent of BDS’s turnover, must reach 25-30 per cent, says Mark Kronenberg, Boeing’s international business development head. The Asia-Pacific region, with India as the largest buyer, is expected to account for 45-50 per cent of foreign sales, with West Asia buying another 25-30 per cent. These plans were jolted last year, when New Delhi rejected Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter in a $17 billion purchase of 126 medium fighters, choosing instead the French Rafale. But Boeing remains optimistic about four potential revenue streams. Besides the P-8 and the C-17 Globemaster III contracts already won, the IAF is also evaluating the purchase of Boeing’s Apache AH-64 attack helicopter; and Chinook CH-47F heavy lift helicopter.
The P-8 being completed here is Seattle has been designated the P8-I (I for India), which distinguishes it from the US version, the P8-A. Two Indian aircraft have already flown, the last one on July 17. Boeing executives say that, by end-2013, three P-8Is will be in operational service in India.
The P8-Is will operate from INS Rajali, a naval base at Arakonam, near Chennai, flying eight-hour missions over the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the northern Indian Ocean. These could involve seeking out pirates, suspicious cargo vessels, or hostile warships and submarines. During such missions, the P-8I’s enhanced internal fuel tanks will allow it to fly 1,100 kilometres to a patrol area, remain on station for up to six hours, and then fly back 1,100 kilometres to Arakonam. Using aerial refuelling, this endurance can be doubled.
On patrol, naval operators scour the area from banks of consoles inside the aircraft. A multi-mode radar in the P-8I’s nose cone looks forward and sideways, picking up aircraft, surface ships and submarines.
Meanwhile, a belly-mounted radar looks backwards, like an electronic rear-view-mirror. Suspicious objects can be investigated further: a suspected enemy submarine is pinpointed by dropping sonobuoys, floating sonar detectors that radio back telltale audio signals. A magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) on the P-8I’s tail distinguishes between an enemy submarine and, say, a blue whale.
These sensors are backed up with armament. The P-8I, basically a Boeing 737-800, has the enhanced wings of a 737-900 onto which weaponry can be mounted. This includes potent anti-ship Harpoon missiles, and the Mark 82 depth charge that the US Navy uses.
Another compartment in the aircraft’s belly will house five Mark 54 torpedoes, the primary submarine-killing armament. These must be warm when they are launched, and so cannot be exposed to the icy temperatures of wing mounting.
The US Navy intends to buy at least 117 P-8A aircraft, as the US version is called, while Boeing expects another 75 aircraft to be snapped up by international customers, especially those who want to upgrade from the P-3C Orion, built by rival company, Lockheed Martin.
Pakistan operates four P-3C Orions, but US government insiders say that a sale of the P-8 to Pakistan would not be cleared.
India, remains a potentially big customer. Robert Schoeffling, the P-8 programme’s Business Development head, anticipates Indian orders for 25-35 P8-Is. “With 7500 kilometres of coastline, 60 per cent of the world’s shipping traffic (passing close by), tremendous need for MDA (maritime domain awareness), including anti-submarine, and with three aircraft carriers in the 2020s, (the Indian Navy is) going to have a tremendous need for such aircraft,” he says.
(Disclosure: The correspondent was invited to Seattle as a guest of The Boeing Company)