Maritime Patrol Aircraft Market Heats Up

A US Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft flies over Jacksonville, Florida.

A US Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft flies over Jacksonville, Florida.

Updated 7/10/2017 to improve readability.

It is no surprise, given the importance of the seas to many rising Pacific military powers, that sales of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) have been faring well as of late. MPA are long-endurance fixed wing aircraft whose role is to surveil the seas and communicate any information they gather. Some larger and more advanced MPA also have the ability to engage targets directly using their own weapons. MPA are crucial for securing a country’s maritime borders, as they provide the kind of persistence and loiter time necessary to monitor the activities of submarines and naval vessels. While other assets such as surface ships and submarines may take days or weeks to arrive on station, MPA can launch from land and transit to station at rapid speed. And, unlike smaller combat aircraft, maritime patrol planes can loiter for many hours, taking stock of the situation and deterring incursions if necessary. MPA can also support lower-intensity missions, such as countering pirates or detecting civilian vessels operating illegally.

Another crucial role that can be filled by MPA is that of disaster response. MPA are able to transit quickly to disaster sites and gather information with their sensors. The communications equipment on board many MPA can be used to coordinate the disaster response with other assets as well. One recent example: US Navy P-8As were dispatched to search for MH370, illustrating the versatility of these aircraft.

Thus, it is not hard to see how MPA could be useful to Pacific nations wishing to defend their maritime claims. In fact, Australia and India have already ordered P-8A Poseidon MPA, which are based on the 737-800ERX airliner. Almost all MPA are based on either airliners or cargo aircraft, although size and capabilities vary widely. With offerings ranging from the relatively small Do 228NG MPA to the massive P-8A and many intermediaries in between, there are many choices to be made in the MPA market.

For nations desiring fast transit times, large payloads, and advanced electronics, there are airliner-based offerings such as the P-8A. These large aircraft not only possess a litany of high-end sensors (the P-8A can detect hydrocarbon emissions from submarines), they can also carry large weapon payloads in internal bays or on wing pylons. However, large MPA do not come cheap: the FY15 flyaway price for a P-8A was $171,000,000, which by definition does not include spare parts, training, or R&D costs. The similarly sized and priced Japanese P-1 may also be available for export as a result of Shinzō Abe’s defense reforms.

A step down from the full-size airliner-based options are the business jet options, such as a new conversion by Saab and Bombardier. While possessing a smaller payload than their full-size brethren, the business jet-based solutions are cheaper than aircraft such as the P-8 and P-1. This is ideal for nations who still need high-end maritime patrol capabilities but are not willing to shell out the substantial sums necessary for a larger jet aircraft.

A Q400 turboprop aircraft, for which an MPA conversion is proposed. Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland

A Q400 turboprop aircraft, for which an MPA conversion is proposed. Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland

Tried and true are the turboprop-based aircraft, which offer low operating costs and high efficiency. Some turboprop aircraft used for maritime patrol conversions, such as the Q400 (above), have payloads similar to or even greater than a small business jet-based aircraft. Such aircraft sacrifice the speed and range of a jet aircraft for the superior low-speed loiter and lower price (and operating costs) of a turboprop. Some of the smallest turboprops, such as the aforementioned Do-228NG MPA, have maximum speeds below 300mph and ranges below 1000 miles. However, they make up for this with exceptionally low airframe costs (a Do 228 airframe costs around $8,000,000 while a Q400 airframe costs around $35,000,000).

Because of this diversity, the maritime patrol industry is a great example of market forces spurring the production of various configurations to suit the diverse needs of customers. With tensions in the world’s seas likely to grow, an uptick in sea-based migration, and predicted increases in natural disasters as a result of global warming, the MPA market seems poised for expansion. Yet to be seen, however, is whether it can support the current level of competition or if some manufacturers will be forced to exit.

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Alex Hempel
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