Naval Air: Better Replaces Cheaper


March 27, 2017: Four years after receiving its first American made P-8I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft India is retiring the three remaining Russian made Tu-142 aircraft the P-8I replaces. In 2009, the year the first P-8Is were ordered, India had eight elderly and heavily used Tu-142s that needed extensive, expensive and time consuming rebuilding to remain in service. Many Indian politicians and bureaucrats wanted to continue with the Russian equipment. But the military experts on these matters insisted that the growing Chinese threat (with Western type ships that are replacing the old Russian designs) requires an effective response. That meant buying more expensive American aircraft.

The Indian decision to switch to U.S. maritime recon aircraft was rather recent. In 2007 India received another Russian built Tu-142. Beginning in 1988 India received the first three of these aircraft and kept getting more until it had eight in service. The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the maritime patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. The Tu-95 aircraft itself entered service in 1956 and is expected to remain in service, along with some Tu-142s variant, until the 2030s. Over 500 Tu-95s were built and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 60 Tu-95s mainly because it cannot afford a replacement. India could afford something better but the Tu-95/142 can still get the job done.

The 188 ton Tu-95 has a 50 meter (167 foot) wingspan and a flight crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer and radioman, and an unrefueled range of 15,000 kilometers. Max speed is 925 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 440 kilometers an hour. Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-142 version still can carry up to ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, depth charges, anti-ship missiles, sonobuoys) and a lot more sensors (naval search radar, electronic monitoring gear). There are two 23mm autocannon mounted in the rear of the aircraft. The mission crew of a Tu-142 usually consists of eight personnel, who operate the radars and other electronic equipment. Patrol flights for the Tu-142 can last twelve hours or more, especially when in-flight refueling is used. Maximum altitude is over 14,000 meters (45,000 feet), although the aircraft flies much lower when searching for submarines. India requires aircraft like these for patrolling the vast India ocean waters that surround the subcontinent. India wanted to upgrade the electronics on its Tu-142s, but has been put off by the high price, and low performance, of what the Russians offered.

The first eight P-8Is were ordered in 2009 and four more (for $250 million each) in 2015. In mid-2013 the first one to arrive spent months being flown around to various naval air bases that it expected to operate from. This included the naval air base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where P-8Is are being used to monitor the three main Chinese trade routes through the Indian Ocean. By late 2014 six P-8Is have been delivered and eighth one arrived in late 2015. The Indian crews and senior commanders were very pleased with the performance of the P-8I, which mainly serves as a maritime patrol aircraft. Training has shown that Indian subs (similar models to what China has) can be detected and tracked by the P-8I. So far the Chinese have not provided enough of their own in the Indian Ocean for the P-8Is to go after but the Indians expect that to change soon.

In 2010 Indian naval planners calculated that they needed at least 24 P-8I aircraft. But so far have only been able to convince the government to buy a dozen. The admirals expect the performance of the P-8I to convince the government to pay for another twelve. In 2011 the navy was allowed to investigate the merits of buying another four P-8Is, largely in response to growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean. India ordered a custom version of the American P-8 and the first eight cost about $220 million each. The growing expense of maintaining their existing Russian Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft, and the need for a more capable recon aircraft, led to that initial order. The first P-8I arrived ahead of schedule. Since 2005 India has bought $10 billion worth of American P-8I, C-130J and C-17 military aircraft and find it is a long-term bargain compared to the cheaper Russian equivalents.

What has made the Indian admirals so enthusiastic about an aircraft that first flew in 2009 and is remarkably similar in terms of the equipment and techniques to the half century old P-3s it replaces? Mainly it is the long and successful track record of these aircraft. Arguably the most successful maritime patrol aircraft ever, the P-3 experience, and some of the same gear were merged with the equally admired Boeing 737 air transport to create the P-8, and that aircraft has exceeded expectations.

India required aircraft like these for patrolling the vast India ocean waters that surround the subcontinent. India wanted to upgrade the electronics on its Tu-142s but has been put off by the high price, and low performance, of what the Russians offered. There was also some question of whether the Russians could meet their schedule and cost assurances. Then the P-8 was noted and the U.S. was willing to provide a customized (to Indian needs) version at a price the Indians could justify. Other navies in the region that used the P-3 were enthusiastic about the P-8 as a worthy successor to the reliable and effective P-3. The U.S. and Indian navies both receives the P-8 at about the same time even though the P-8Is are slightly different than the P-8A.

The P-8 is based on the widely used Boeing 737 airliner. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet, compared to the four engine turboprop P-3, it is a more capable plane. The P-8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3 and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about 10 hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs first spotted by distant sonar arrays or satellites. However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons versus 5.6). This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobouys) are lighter and more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.

The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3. The P-3 was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built, plus 600 P-3s. About 40 Electras are still in service. The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built. The P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and four wing racks for weapons. The P-8 costs about $275 million each.