In terms of looks, if a DC-8 and a P-3 ever drank too much high octane fuel and had a steamy one-night stand, the Kawasaki P-1 would be born nine months later. Japan’s home-made and high-tech multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft is a purpose-built weapon system with a lot going for it, and Japan hopes potential foreign customers agree.
Japan began working on the P-1 as a replacement for their aging P-3 Orions after the Lockheed P-7 was cancelled in the 1990s and after no other available type seemed to meet their needs. This occurred in a very similar manner as how the U.S. Navy developed the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. The big difference between the P-8 and the P-1 being that the P-8 was adapted from the most prolific airliner of all time, the 737, while the P-1 was a clean-sheet design that is specifically configured for the long-range multi-role maritime patrol mission set. Most notably, the P-1 is slightly smaller than the P-8 yet it features four turbofan engines instead of two.
Many have besmirched the P-8 for only having two jet engines. Its challenging mission set, that often sees the aircraft flying to very remote areas and at lower altitudes where birds often share the airspace, does question the logic of procuring a twin-engine aircraft in such a role. Boeing and the Navy have posited that the P-8 can operate at higher altitudes with its improved sensors and that engine technology has come a long way in recent decades. How higher operating altitudes and two engines instead of four will affect the P-8’s effectiveness and safety remains unclear, although the jet has seemed to have gotten good reviews after several high-profile public events that it was involved in. Those being the search for MH370 and monitoring China’s island building in the South China Sea. Still, these tasks are a far cry from hunting elusive enemy submarines in all weather conditions.
The stubby Kawasaki P-1 also features a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) boom on its tail, a feature that was dropped from the U.S. Navy’s P-8 equipment list due to cost and integration issues. The MAD is used to detect submerged submarines and many in the P-3 community were very concerned that it was omitted from the Poseidon’s final configuration, especially consider the exploding threat that submarines, especially long-diving and relatively cheap Air Independent Propulsion equipped diesel submarines, pose to American interests around the globe.
Other differences between the P-8 and the P-1 are the latter’s massive cockpit windows, which allows the pilots to become a little more engaged with surface searches. The P-1 has a bit smaller cabin than its American peer, a reality that may limit future upgrades and added capabilities, something the P-8 is already experiencing. Also, although a fresh design has clear advantages, the P-8 is a next generation 737 at heat, which means parts and support are not an issue.
The P-1 first flew in 2007 (as the XP-1) and entered limited service in 2013. It was originally designed together with another of Japan’s indigenous aircraft designs, the XC-2 (now known as the C-2) that was meant to replace Japan’s C-130s and C-1s. Although both aircraft became very different designs in the end, the C-2 and the P-1 have similar components and subsystems, which saved billions of dollars in their development.
The P-1 is really a cutting-edge design. By taking a “clean-sheet” approach, Kawasaki was able to incorporate some unique systems in the jet that help with its primary mission. The main one being a “fly-by-light” control system. This is similar to fly-by-wire but instead of traditional wiring and communications interfaces between the controls, flight control computer and control surface actuators, a fiber-optic system is used. Not only does this system help with reliability and upgrades down the road, but it also causes less electromagnetic interference with the aircraft’s sensitive mission hardware.
The P-1 has roughly similar sensor suite to that of the P-8, although the effectiveness of either one when compared to each-other remains unknown. Some of the sensors and mission equipment installed on the P-1 include a Toshiba HPS-106 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar system which has four antennas, giving it constant 360 degree coverage. It packs a self protection suite including missile launch detectors and the aircraft also has an infrared and electro-optical turret for examining and tracking surface targets. A MAD (like the P-3 has it replaces), a LIDAR system and 30 sonobuoys ports that can be pre-loaded with room for another 60 sonobuoys stored in racks in the cabin, are all there for chasing subs. These systems are tied to a user interface in the cabin that uses intuitive control and artificial intelligence to predict a submarines movements, giving operators the best probable options for continuing to track one using the aircraft’s various systems as a single integrated force.
Other systems include a high-end communications system which includes various data-links as well as satellite communications and data exchange capability. Japan’s latest electronic surveillance measures suite for sniffing out enemy radars and electromagnetic emissions is also added. All together, these capabilities give the P-1 a secondary communications relay and information, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in a similar fashion as the American P-8.
As far as combat punch goes, the P-1 definitely has it. By not adapting an off-the-shelf design, Japan was able to create a jet optimized to carry external and internal stores, as opposed to retrofitting such a military-only capability. In total, the P-1 has 16 hardpoints, two on each wing, two on each wing root and eight in its weapons bays. As far as the weapons “menu” that the P-1 can use, it is similar to the P-8. These include AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, Japan’s indigenously produced ASM-1C anti-ship missile, as well as various bombs, mines, torpedoes and depth charges. Like the P-8, one day the P-1 could integrate laser guided and GPS guided bombs into its quiver. Such a capability would give Japan a more persistent over-land close air support capability than their fighter jet force can provide. In this way the P-1 would work as a communications and surveillance node, as well as an arsenal ship/bomber.
Today, a couple dozen P-1s have been ordered by or delivered to Japan and after teething problems, the aircraft is rumored to perform fantastically well at its job. Still, Japan’s demand for the aircraft is limited to replacing their own P-3 fleet and seeing that the aircraft is a now an integrated weapon system that has its major bugs worked out, Japan wants to see if it can get some of the billions of dollars invested into the program back in the form of international sales. This is precisely why two P-1s will appear at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) this year, with one aircraft being shown as a static display and the other flying a routine during the air show and arms expo.
The UK’s Royal Navy in particular is in great need of a maritime multi-role aircraft. Since the Nimrod MRA4 debacle of the last decade, the Ministry of Defence has no maritime patrol and sea control fixed-wing platform, which is pretty absurd for an island country. This is especially true seeing as Russia has drastically increased its submarine patrols all around the British Isles and even has sailed its ships into the English Channel.
Current candidates to fulfill this huge capability gap include America’s P-8 Poseidon, its smaller cousin the Challenger business jet-based Boeing Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, a multi-role maritime patrol version of the C-130J known as the Sea Hercules and an Airbus C-295 configured for the maritime patrol role. Although other defense contractors will offer even more options, as of now this would put the P-1 somewhere between the P-8 and the Sea Hercules when it comes to cost and capability.
Currently, the P-1 is said to run about $140 million per copy fully outfitted (the P-8 is about $250M), but this figure could drop as efficiencies are found in producing higher numbers of aircraft at a time and as the aircraft matures. Additionally, Japan can be quite aggressive with its exports, and could even take a loss to realize a larger and more efficient total fleet size of P-1s and to get their first international customer for the type.
The UK is not the only customer out there that really needs to get into the maritime patrol game in a larger way than they currently are. Countries around the globe are finding huge capability gaps in this space. Asia especially, with its growing territorial tensions should see the multi-role maritime aircraft marketplace explode in the coming decade.
When you look at the P-1 and the P-8 closely you realize that the U.S. and their close ally Japan basically built similar aircraft for almost the identical mission. It is unfortunate that they could not work together on a common design. With a little foresight, who knows? We could be seeing P-1s with U.S. Navy titles on their wings today.
In the end the marketplace will tell if the P-1 offers enough extra capability at the right price to bring in the big defense bucks from abroad, but out of all the aircraft on the market in its mission-space, it is the only clean-sheet, totally purpose-built design. In this day and age of multi-role everything, where manufacturers constantly shoehorn disparate capabilities into a few common designs, that has to be worth something.
Photos via: Wikicommons: Top shot- Ken H / @chippyho, side shot of 5501 Toshiro Aoki, XC-2-Richard Vandervord. P-8 and P-1 via USN, Sea Hercules concept via Lockheed. All other shots via Japanese Government/MoD
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.