Since last year, Boeing has worked with Ontario-based Field Aviation to convert a Bombardier Challenger 604 business jet into what they claim is a cost-effective, multi-mission surveillance aircraft. The mid-sized MSA will incorporate much of the technology already developed for Boeing's P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, although it will lack anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.
On display at this year's Farnborough Air Show, the aircraft still resembles a business jet, but now with a large belly radome and antennas to accommodate various systems and sensors. Airforce-Technology was given a tour by Boeing's senior business development manager for the MSA programme, Bob Schoeffling.
Grant Turnbull: The first modified MSA completed its maiden flight in February - how successful was that?
Bob Schoeffling: It was very successful. We did the analysis for the antennas and radome but you really don't know until that first flight how good your analysis is. The rewarding part was when the pilots came back and said they couldn't tell they were flying a modified Challenger. It flew great.
GT: What tests have you carried out since the first flight?
BS: The first thing we had to do was airworthiness testing; we tested it at various speeds, altitudes and angles of attack to make sure that it still had the aerodynamic characteristics that it's supposed to. Once we got it to a point in the aerodynamic tests we brought it to Seattle and we did all the installations and check out.
Field Aviation had already installed the radome and antennas so when it arrived at Boeing we put in the sensors and all the interior. We finished that last month and obviously we had to finish that before we brought it to Farnborough.
GT: What's in store for the aircraft after Farnborough wraps up?
BS: After Farnborough the aircraft will go back to Seattle. Now we've got to do the mission systems and sensor check out. We've got all these sensors that are on the airplane, even though we are operating some of them now, we still have to verify the installed performance of those sensors. So when we turn the systems on we have to verify that it works as advertised.
With the ever-increasing utility of unmanned systems, why is the US Navy still investing billions in a manned aircraft?
GT: When do you plan on demonstrating the MSA to customers?
BS: Customer demonstration flights will be sometime at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
GT: Where did the original idea for the MSA come from? Was it customer initiated or did you see a gap in the market?
BS: The development idea was really led by two things; it was led by customer involvement and it was also led by seeing a gap in the market. The P-8 does every mission that you would want it to do, but not every country wants to do ASW and not every country wants to carry weapons. We saw that a mid-sized business jet with P-8 mission systems - that doesn't do ASW and that doesn't carry weapons but does virtually all the other missions - really fits well into that segment.
GT: Do you see strong demand for this type of aircraft over the next 10 years?
BS: We looked at countries that had an existing mid-sized capability and when their current airplanes would need to be replaced. We think that market is about 150 airplanes and worth USD10 billion over ten years. It's fairly crowded market space, there are a lot of mid-sized business jets and turboprops, but what we bring to the table are very mature mission systems which will be operated by the US Navy for another 20-25 years.
GT: Why did you choose the Bombardier Challenger as your base platform?
BS: We chose the platform very carefully; we were looking for an aircraft that had space, weight capacity, range, speed and the persistence. The Bombardier really fit that bill. It's an aircraft which is very economical to operate; it's built to a commercial standard.
GT: Could the Boeing MSA work alongside the P-8 Poseidon in maritime operations?
BS: If a customer wanted to have a fleet of both P-8s and MSAs to accomplish complimentary missions then it could happen. We have had customer conversations where we've talked about a dual buy of P-8 Poseidons and MSAs.
GT: Why doesn't the MSA have anti-submarine capabilities?
BS: The MSA just isn't big enough to carry the amount of sonobuoys needed, over a hundred sometimes, and it doesn't have a weapons bay. To effectively do ASW you have to be able to complete the kill chain and you only do that by carrying torpedoes, and the P-8 has a weapons bay where it can carry them. If a country wants to do real ASW then the P-8 is the aircraft of choice.
GT: According to Boeing, the MSA will carry around 80% of P-8 missions systems - can you tell me more?
BS: The MSA is fitted with the Selex 7300 AESA multi-mode radar, a very capable radar that does surface search to small target detection. We have the FLIR 380 high-definition electro-optical/infrared sensor turret that has three cameras. The MSA is also fitted with the Argon ST COMINT [communications intelligence] system. Argon ST is a wholly owned Boeing subsidiary which makes COMINT systems for the US Navy so they're world leaders.
We chose a Boeing ESM [electronic support measures], the same ESM system that's on the Republic of Korea Air Force's 737 AEW&Cs - a very capable system also. And we also picked the same AIS [automatic identification system] that's on the P-8 made by Shine Micro. We also have a high-speed data link which is line-of-sight and we've also got an Inmarsat antennae to send information.
GT: The MSA will have three operators onboard - how is all this information relayed back to them?
BS: Each sensor station has two 24 inch high-definition monitors; they are all multi-touch so it's like working on a tablet.
GT: The UK will be searching for a new maritime patrol aircraft after next year's strategic defence review, is the MSA a good platform for them?
BS: This platform is good for countries that have the same mission needs that we fulfil.