Boeing’s latest patrol plane is performing brilliantly in the Indian Ocean

Normally, no good can come to a manufacturer from the crash of an airplane it built. And it’s true that Malaysian Airlines’ missing plane is a Boeing 777. But the tragedy must be put in context, as the 777’s safety record to date has been exemplary, with only one fatal flying accident in nineteen years of operation, and that almost certainly from pilot error. So today, the hunt for Flight 370 across the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean is actually an opportunity for Boeing, as several air arms showcase its latest big jet—the P-8 Poseidon.

To understand the P-8, think of a 737 with a dozen crew, ocean-sweeping sensors, extra fuel tanks to extend its range, a bomb bay for torpedoes, and hard points under the wings for cruise missiles. Boeing’s two current customers for the type, the US Navy and the Indian Navy, have each sent two P-8s to fly from Air Base Pearce outside Perth. (The Indian aircraft are, strictly speaking, P-8I Neptunes, but these differ mostly in their surface-search radars.)

Alongside the Americans and the Indians, the Royal Australian Air Force is flying several of its AP-3Cs, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force is flying one of its P-3K2s. These are both versions of Lockheed Martin’s original P-3 Orion—a four-engine turboprop whose design is based on that of the Lockheed Electra airliner of 1957. The engines, electronics and weapons are all much newer, but the aircraft are still much slower. So over the past week, while the RAAF and the RNZAF have been transiting to the search boxes, the US and Indian Navies have already been out combing the waves.

The Chinese Air Force sent several Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft, bought second-hand from Russia. Those planes have lots of windows; the Chinese government’s press release highlighted how useful they would be for visual search. While that is handy now, it’s making a virtue of necessity. There really is no airplane comparable to the P-8 on the market.

Admittedly, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, thinks that the Poseidon is not ready for its surveillance and submarine-hunting missiles. But Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s procurement czar, found his report overdone, lauding the capabilities demonstrated so far. And as Everett Pyle of the McCain Institute recently wrote, the airplane is being produced more-or-less on schedule and budget, which doesn’t always happen with military procurement projects. 

In any case, it’s probably time to get used to the idea, as the plane entered full-rate production in January. Some three years ago, I argued strongly for the Poseidon, and in wider roles. Across the western Pacific, the P-8As would be much less expensive to fly than either B-52Hs or B-1Bs as standoff bombers with cruise missiles. The faster-flying B-1 is being modified to launch antiship missiles, and speed can matter tactically. But the P-8 could swing between this role and submarine-hunting, however the threat evolved.

Where might this matter? Well back in 2007, the Australian DoD announced that it would start replacing its Orions with Poseidons in 2016. The preview in Perth is probably enticing for the RAAF crews, and will stave off any buyer’s remorse, as unlikely as that might be. On the other hand, the Canadian DND is out, admitting this week that it can’t find the money for new long-range planes. The RCAF would love them, but each P-8 sells for about $220 million.

There are at least two strong possibilities for which this attention is valuable, and for whom the price might be manageable. Since the cancellation of the disastrous Nimrod MRA4 upgrade project in 2010, Britain’s lack of maritime patrol aircraft has been embarrassing. This capability could reestablished with a comparatively inexpensive, short-ranged aircraft like Airbus’s C-295, which the Chileans recently bought. But the RAF’s ambitions are arguably global, and Boeing will make that point. The wide-ranging search patterns this week are mightily convenient for that purpose.

The Norwegians are similarly a strong sales prospect. While the Luftforsvaret flies six Orions, they are old and difficult to maintain. The Norwegian Sea is huge, and Norway is one of few NATO countries that share a border with Russia. This spring has been a good time for making sales calls, as Mr. Putin has been providing plenty of free publicity. Frankly, whether from a missing airliner or a lost province, misfortune is a marketing tool in the arms trade. It’s a sobering reminder of the seriousness of our business, and it’s one we can’t afford to avoid.

James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.