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The P-8A Poseidon adventure begins for the Navy

There's a new sub-hunter in town: the US Navy's P-8A Poseidon, just now taking to the air to replace the venerable P-3C Orion. And soon it'll have a drone deputy.

P-8A Poseidon torpedo drop
Torpedo away! A P-8A Poseidon tests out its armaments systems in a February 2012 evaluation flight. US Navy photo by Greg L. Davis

The US Navy likes to dip into Greek and Roman mythology to name the aircraft it puts on the front lines of maritime patrol missions and antisubmarine warfare.

Once there was the P-2 Neptune, which went into service not long after World War II and has long since been retired. The early 1960s brought the P-3 Orion, the scions of which are still on active duty today. Now, to replace the venerable Orion, comes the P-8A Poseidon.

At the beginning of December 2013, a half-dozen Poseidons arrived at Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa for the aircraft's first operational deployment, on duty with the Navy's Patrol Squadron 16 (VP 16) in support of the 7th Fleet. To date, Boeing has delivered 13 of the aircraft, which are based on its commercial 737-800 design. (Similarly, the new KC-46A Tanker aerial-refueling aircraft, which is to replace the older KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders, is based on the commercial Boeing 767 design.)

And more are on the way: a few days ago, Boeing said that it had received a $2.4 billion contract from the Navy to build an additional 16, and to move to full production from the earlier status of preliminary low-rate production. That puts the big defense contractor under contract so far to deliver 53 of the P-8A Poseidons. Eventually, the Navy aims to acquire a grand total of 117.

The role of the P-8A is long-range antisubmarine and antisurface warfare, and for good measure it can also do more general intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The Navy says that the jet-powered P-8A is significantly quieter than the propeller-driven P-3C (the most modern version of the P-3), requires less maintenance, and provides more on-station time (meaning, essentially, that it can hang out longer in a given patrol area).

It's the rare new piece of military technology that comes on the scene without some controversy. (F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, we're looking at you.) In the case of the P-8A Poseidon, the head of the Pentagon's testing office has pointed to a number of "deficiencies" in the P-8A that would make the aircraft, at least early on, "not effective for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission and...not effective for wide area anti-submarine search," according to a prepublication version of an annual report on weapons systems seen by Bloomberg News.

A Navy spokeswoman cited by Bloomberg sought to lay those concerns to rest: "Most issues cited have been collectively identified," she said, and the Navy has developed "software upgrades to correct deficiencies."

For the foreseeable future, the Navy won't be relying on the P-8A Poseidon alone for sub-hunting and other patrol missions. The P-3C Orion will remain deployed for a transition phase while the Poseidon squadrons get up to full strength.

And soon enough, too, the Poseidon, which has a crew of nine, will have a new partner in the air -- an unmanned one. It'll be Northrop Grumman's MQ-4C Triton, a drone aircraft adapted from the established Global Hawk, intended to share the work load with the Poseidon. Eventually, there will be 68 of the Triton aircraft -- and there's that Greek mythology thing again -- but for now, that's still a long way off. As of the start of this year, Northrop Grumman and the Navy had conducted nine test flights of the Triton.