The P-8 is a militarized version of the Boeing 737-800 with 737-900-based wings. The fuselage is similar, but longer, than the 737-700-based C-40 Clipper transport aircraft in service with the United States Navy. The P-8 has a strengthened fuselage and Boeing 767-400ER-style raked wingtips, instead of the blended winglets available on 737NG variants. In order to power additional onboard electronics, the P-8 has a 180kVA electric generator on each engine, replacing the 90kVA generator of civilian 737s; this required the redesigning of the nacelles and their wing mountings.
The five operator stations (two naval flight officers plus three enlisted Aviation Warfare Operators/naval aircrewman) are mounted in a sideways row, along the port side of the cabin. None of the crew stations have windows; a single observer window is located on each side of the forward cabin. A short bomb bay for torpedoes and other stores opens behind the wing. The P-8 is to be equipped with the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC) Air Launch Accessory (ALA), turning a Mark 54 torpedo into a glide bomb for deploying from up to 30,000 ft (9,100 m).
The P-8 features the Raytheon APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar; the P-8I features an international version of the APY-10. Unlike the preceding P-3, the P-8 lacks a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) due to its higher operational altitude. Various sensor data are combined via data fusion software to track targets. Following the cancellation of Lockheed Martin's Aerial Common Sensor project, Boeing proposed a signals intelligence variant of the P-8 for the Navy's requirement.
In U.S. service, the P-8 fleet will be complemented by around 40 Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system to provide continuous surveillance. In January 2015, BAE Systems was awarded a contract for the Navy's High Altitude ASW (HAASW) Unmanned Targeting Air System (UTAS) program to develop a sub-hunting UAV equipped with a MAD for launching from the P-8. The P-8 cannot use the Navy's typical hose-and-drogue in-flight refueling method, instead featuring a flying boom receptacle on the upper-forward fuselage. For extended endurance, six additional fuel tanks from Marshall Aerospace are housed in the forward and rear cargo compartments.
The Lockheed P-3 Orion, a turboprop ASW aircraft, has been in service with the United States Navy since 1962. In the 1980s, the Navy began studies for a P-3 replacement, the range and endurance of which was reducing due to increasing weight and airframe fatigue life limitations. The specification required a new aircraft to have reduced operating and support costs. In 1989, the Navy awarded Lockheed a fixed-price contract to develop the P-7, but this was canceled the following year. A second competition for a replacement began in 2000. Lockheed Martin submitted the Orion 21, an updated new-build version of the P-3. Boeing's proposal was based on its 737-800 airliner. BAE Systems offered a new-build version of the Nimrod MRA4, a British jet-powered maritime patrol aircraft. BAE withdrew from the competition in October 2002, recognizing that without a production partner based in the United States, the bid was politically unrealistic. On 14 May 2004, Boeing was selected as the winner.
In June 2004, the U.S. Navy awarded a development contract to Boeing. The project was planned to be for at least 108 airframes for the Navy. More orders are possible from the other nations operating over 200 P-3s. Project value is expected to be worth at least $15 billion. Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Spirit AeroSystems, GE Aviation Systems, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, CFMI, BAE Systems, and Marotta are major subcontractors. In July 2004, the Navy placed an order for five MMA aircraft, and the first flight-test aircraft was to be completed in 2009. On 30 March 2005, the P-8A designation was assigned to the aircraft.
Design phase and testing
The P-8 is to replace the P-3 Orion. At first, it will be equipped with legacy P-3 systems, but later upgrades will incorporate more advanced technology. The Government Accountability Office credited the incremental approach with keeping the project on schedule and on budget. In 2008, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) deleted the requirement for the P-8A to be equipped with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) equipment as part of an effort that reduced weight by 3,500 lb (1,600 kg) to improve endurance and range. A hydrocarbon sensor detects fuel vapors from diesel-powered submarines and ships.
The P-8's first flight was on 25 April 2009. The second and third P-8s had flown and were in flight testing in early August 2010. On 11 August 2010, the US approved the P-8 for low-rate production. A P-8 released sonobuoys for the first time on 15 October 2010, dropping six sonobuoys in three separate low-altitude passes. In 2011, it was found that the P-8's ice detection system was defective due to the use of counterfeit components; allegedly these computer parts were poorly refurbished and sold to subcontractor BAE Systems as new by a Chinese supplier.
The first production P-8A was handed over to the Navy on 4 March 2012. It flew to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, for training with the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), Patrol Squadron 30 (VP-30). On 24 September 2012, Boeing announced a $1.9 billion order for 11 aircraft. On 10 June 2013, a DoD Inspector General (IG) report noted that the Navy should delay full-rate production over a lack of key information to assess if the P-8 meets operational requirements. Additional testing was also needed to guarantee a 25-year lifespan. Boeing executives dismissed the report, saying that the test program is on track. In 2013, full-rate production was delayed until the P-8 could demonstrate it can survive its 25-year lifespan without structural fatigue, overcome mission-limited deficiencies, track surface ships, and perform primary missions.
On 24 June 2013, a P-8 successfully scored a direct hit with a live AGM-84D Block IC Harpoon anti-ship missile during weapons integration testing. On 1 July 2013, an initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) report found that the P-8A was "operationally effective, operationally suitable, and ready for fleet introduction." Six test and nine low-rate initial production aircraft had been delivered at that point. On 31 July 2013, Boeing received a $2.04 billion contract to build 13 P-8As in the fourth low-rate initial production lot, for a fleet of 37 aircraft by the end of 2016, and long-lead parts for 16 P-8As of the first full-rate production lot.
As of September 2013 it was intended to replace all Navy P-3s with 117 P-8As by 2019, but budget cuts may delay this by two years. On 3 January 2014, the Naval Air Systems Command proceeded with full-rate production of the P-8A. Increment 1 systems include persistent anti-submarine warfare capabilities and an integrated sensor suite; in 2016, Increment 2 upgrades will add multi-static active coherent acoustics, an automated identification system, and high-altitude anti-submarine weapons. Increment 3 in 2020 shall enable "net-enabled anti-surface warfare".
In July 2014, Fred Smith, business development director for the P-8, noted that the program had proved "so efficient, it saved $2.1 billion on 2004 estimates of the cost of production"; and that "the aircraft is now selling for $150 million, down from the forecasted $216 million". The halving of USN orders from 16 aircraft per year down to 8 in 2015 due to the expiration of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 was expected to be partially offset by commercial 737 sales and export sales of the P-8.
In 2010, Boeing proposed to replace the U.S. Air Force's Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint STARS fleet with a modified P-8 at the same cost Northrop Grumman proposed for re-engining and upgrading the E-8s. The proposed P-8 Airborne Ground Surveillance (AGS) would integrate an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and have ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) capabilities.
The main distinguishing feature of the P-8 AGS was a pod-mounted radar on the lower centerline of the fuselage; the pod is lowered so the engine nacelles do not interrupt the radar's line of sight. Two aft ventral fins increase aircraft stability. The P-8 AGS reused the P-8A's Raytheon AN/APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar. In 2010, the Air Force launched an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) of the JSTARS platform. In 2013, Boeing proposed repackaging P-8 systems in the smaller and less expensive Bombardier Challenger 600 series business jet, as the Boeing Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA), instead. In 2014, Boeing also offered a JSTARS replacement based on the Boeing 737-700, rather than the P-8's 737-800.