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New MPA Solutions Look to Take on Boeing P-8A Poseidon

Today, the Boeing P-8 ‘Poseidon’ dominates the market of next-generation maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Based on the Boeing 737-800 ERX airliner, the P-8 is in service with the United States Navy (USN) as well as five additional operators, with two more awaiting orders and one potentially signing a contract soon.

To date, Boeing has manufactured 156 P-8A and P-8Is. However, in 2025, Boeing may close the Poseidon’s production line as it nears delivering the final batch of P-8s for the USN. Of course, additional orders from overseas customers could extend the P-8’s run into the 2030s.

Boeing projects a potential market for around 75 additional P-8As. The majority of these prospective users would likely be existing P-8 operators as well as current P-3C users, such as Canada, among others.

However, a number of current P-3C operators – such as Pakistan, Brazil, or Argentina – are unlikely to buy P-8As. They either cannot afford it, or they will never gain the necessary approvals from the U.S. to ever access it. Thus, Boeing will not address the entire market in need for next-generation MPAs. In fact, it may not even engage the majority of such users, especially when cost is factored into the equation.

Thus, several defence vendors are now actively working to develop more accessible MPAs to enable these countries to replace their legacy aircraft. Currently, there are three MPA programs in development, and, interestingly, each system responds to a distinct need.

Kawasaki P-1

Kawasaki Aerospace Company designed the P-1 from the ground up in response to the needs of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). The JMSDF sought a new-generation MPA to replace its large P-3C fleet which, interestingly, Japan had built under license domestically.

The Kawasaki P-1 is an original platform. Unlike any of the other options, it was not based on an existing airliner. Like the P-3C, the P-1’s design was centered on carrying a comprehensive sensor suite, delivering a significant level of range and endurance, and a robust payload for both anti-ship warfare (AShW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Like the P-8A, the P-1 offers a smooth capability transition for P-3C users who are looking to retain the Orion’s range, endurance, and mission payload capabilities.

Thus, overall, the P-1 offers countries a directly analogous alternative to the P-8A, especially in regard to AShW and ASW payloads. For example, the P-8A offers a payload capacity of 10,000 kg across 11 external and internal hardpoints. In contrast, the P-1 has a payload of 9,000 kg distributed across 8 externally and internally-mounted hardpoints. Even after Boeing closes the P-8A’s production line, countries seeking the purpose-designed MPA could still talk to Japan for the P-1.

However, Japan is the sole operator of the P-1. Though Tokyo is looking to export the P-1, it will unlikely get the aircraft in the hands of countries that Washington itself does not consider allies. Thus, the target customer base of the P-1 is similar to that of the P-8A. But even then, finding customers may be difficult as the current userbase is narrow, which may dissuade countries worried about long-term lifecycle and/or maintenance issues. Japan would need to secure several sales in quick-succession (or, ideally, a joint-order by several countries) to drive market-wide interest in the P-1.

In contrast, the next two options – i.e., the Sea Sultan and the P-6 – leverage commercially available VVIP jets and, in turn, modify them for the MPA role. Interestingly, the idea likely came from Saab, which had offered the Swordfish MPA, a modification suite applied onto the Bombardier Global Express 6000. Saab had marketed the Swordfish as a lower cost, more accessible alternative to the P-8A.

However, Saab shelved the Swordfish project. Yet only a year or so after it shelved the program, Pakistan initiated a similar project in collaboration with South Africa’s Paramount Group and Italy’s Leonardo. But unlike Saab, the Pakistani MPA program uses the Embraer Lineage 1000E as its base platform.

Yet, the idea of a Global Express 6000-based MPA still lives on, except through the P-6, which is designed and marketed by the Canadian-based PAL Aerospace.

Sea Sultan Long-Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMPA)

The Pakistan Navy (PN) has a requirement for 10 new long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) to both complement and, eventually, supplant its P-3C fleet. In 2020, the PN opted for an original LRMPA project based on the Embraer Lineage 1000. In 2021, the PN signed deals with Leonardo and Paramount Group to source key inputs and carry out the modification and integration work.

Neither the PN nor its contractors have revealed the specifications of this LRMPA (dubbed “Sea Sultan”). However, given that the project’s scope centers on modifying existing aircraft, one could look at the Saab Swordfish as a benchmark for the Sea Sultan, at least in some respects.

For example, the Global Express 6000’s maximum take-off weight (MTOW) is closer to the Lineage 1000E (i.e., 45,132 kg vs. 54,500 kg) than it is to the P-8A (85,820 kg). Saab had aimed to give the Swordfish four to six external hardpoints for anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) and lightweight torpedoes (LWT). One can plausibly speculate that the Sea Sultan would have four to six external hardpoints.

However, there have been reports of the PN seeking a torpedo bay solution that it could append to the Lineage 1000’s airframe. Thus, the AShW and ASW payload capacity of the Sea Sultan would be in-between that of the P-8A (or P-1) and the Swordfish.

In terms of sensors and other electronics, the PN will likely carry forward the same active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, electronic support measures (ESM) system, and Star SAFIRE electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret configuration from its RAS-72 MPAs. In this respect, the Sea Sultan would be nearly identical to the Saab Swordfish (the combat management system would be the main difference).

However, unlike the Swordfish or P-6, the Sea Sultan program is in the implementation stage. It will come to fruition thanks to the PN’s launch order. While Embraer cut the Lineage 1000’s production short, one can still acquire the closely related standard airliner variant, the E190-E2.

PAL Aerospace P-6 Multi-Mission Patrol Aircraft (MMPA)

Like the Saab Swordfish, PAL Aerospace is basing its MPA solution on the Global Express 6000-series, but specifically the newer Global 6500. Like the Swordfish and Sea Sultan, the P-6 draws on commercially off-the-shelf (COTS) sensors and electronics. Interestingly, PAL Aerospace made a firm commitment towards securing a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), which is not surprising considering Canada is one of the key suppliers of that technology. Iti s unclear if the PN will acquire MAD for the Sea Sultan (though if it wants to replace the P-3C, it will need a MAD system, which it can procure from either Canada or the U.K).

However, the P-6 does differ from the Swordfish in its AShW and ASW configuration. Like the Sea Sultan, the P-6 leverages a specially designed LWT carrying and launching module appended to the airframe. The P-6’s payload will likely be closer to that of the Sea Sultan than the Swordfish.

Choosing between the P-6 or Sea Sultan depends on the operational requirements of the user. But in both cases, the goal is to achieve both upfront and operational cost savings. The benefit of the using any of the two VVIP platforms is that one can basically repurpose existing aircraft that can be acquired at a relatively low price. From that point, it is a question of modifying those aircraft for the MPA role.

One additional benefit of VVIP aircraft is that they offer significantly more range and endurance compared to standard airliner designs. This is likely a key reason why the vendors involved in these programs chose VVIP aircraft. They cannot provide the payload advantages of the P-8A or P-1, but they can offer sufficient range for their end-users to at least carry out their surveillance and mission support roles at sea.

When it comes to the AShW and ASW role, the operator could try fielding more MPAs by leveraging the lower cost of the modified VVIP platforms compared to the purpose-built P-8A and P-1. Likewise, larger drones – like the Bayraktar Akıncı – could help offset the gap by enabling the end user to bring torpedoes and missiles to the mission area in addition to the MPAs.

Thus far, the MPA industry seems to have bifurcated between two extremes. On the one hand, one could acquire large and highly capable aircraft designed for the MPA role from the ground up, i.e., P-8A and P-1. On the other hand, a country can pick up and modify VVIP jets with a credible sensor and payload, but still be limited in the latter compared to the P-8A/P-1. Hence, there may be a gap in the middle providing a heavier payload compared to the Sea Sultan or P-6, but at a lower cost compared to the P-8A or P-1.

Modified VVIP-based MPAs have not yet caught on as widely as the P-8A. Pakistan is the exception due to its specific circumstances, yet every other P-3C has either selected the P-8A or is standing pat and waiting to see if the market produces something else. It will be interesting to see if this potential ‘middle-of-the-pack,’ solution emerges as a purpose-built design (like the P-1) or an evolution of modified VVIP aircraft.

 

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