Boeing to develop mini Poseidon spy plane

Company to use own R&D funds to fill potential $10B market for mid size maritime surveillance aircraft over next decade.

FARNBOROUGH, England — Boeing builds planes. That’s what they do. So when the company announced Tuesday they plan to develop a medium sized Maritime Security Aircraft, it came as quite a surprise when Boeing officials said the spy plane would be “platform agnostic.”

The aerospace giant based out of Seattle, Wash., already builds the U.S. Air Force’s E-3 Sentry outfitted with the airborne early warning and control system. And the U.S. Navy is set to buy 13 P-8 Poseidon anti-sub spy planes with an initial operation capability date set for 2013.

Boeing executives see a need for maritime security aircraft in the international market, but built on a smaller, more affordable platform. The aircraft will be built to combat piracy, provide coastal and border security, enforce economic exclusion zones and  patrol for illegal immigrants. Fred Smith, Boeing’s director of Navy and Marine Corps business development for Surveillance and Engagement, said he expects a $10 billion market for maritime surveillance aircraft over the next ten years.

Engineers with Boeing will take systems and capabilities from the P-8 and install them onto a mid size business aircraft, said Egan Greenstein, a senior Boeing manager. Greenstein wouldn’t name the company Boeing is talking to or give any details on the business plane, only to say he expects the announcement to come by the end of the year.

Boeing will develop the maritime spy plane with their own money. This can be tricky, though, when a company is left to guess what requirements a customer might want, Greenstein said. He did say the company has had discussions with potential navy and air force officials of countries who might be interested in the aircraft.

Again, Greenstein wouldn’t list any potential customers, but if you read between the lines they likely are located in the Middle East or Asia. He said the U.S. would prefer to buy existing aircraft and Europe just doesn’t have any money right now.

It would be easy to call this new maritime spy plane a mini-Poseidon except it will not be a submarine hunter. Boeing figured the countries they are targeting with this plane couldn’t afford it if they installed the systems and torpedoes needed. In fact, this maritime surveillance aircraft will not carry weapons.

Boeing officials felt it would be more cost effective for the navies or air forces that buy this aircraft to send the intelligence collected by it to separate shooters like an attack helicopter. It’s hard to say if the aircraft could even fit the torpedoes needed to knock out a sub without knowing what aircraft Boeing plans to use. Eliminating the anti-submarine mission also reduces the crew requirement for this maritime security aircraft from five to three.

The surprise remains for Boeing to reach out to another company to build them an aircraft for this spy plane. Walking around Farnborough makes it clear that aerospace companies are trying to survive these lean defense budgetary times any way they can.

Developing a new mid-size aircraft might be too big a risk for Boeing to take without the guarantee of a contract at the end of development. It would also make the price tag for the maritime spy plane much more expensive. Boeing leaders said it shouldn’t be seen as a weakness for the company to look for some help.

“The Boeing Maritime Surveillance Aircraft showcases how Boeing is meeting customers’ current and future needs by migrating advanced, mature technologies from one program into adjacent markets, even with non-Boeing platforms,” said Tim Peters, Boeing vice president and general manager, Surveillance and Engagement.