- SEATTLE -- Picture the Boeing
737 -- the small, stocky jetliner that's the workhorse of hundreds of airlines
around the world. Now picture the 737 with missiles slung under its wings
and a bomb bay in its belly.
- Boeing is gearing up to modify its ubiquitous twin-jet,
single-aisle airliner into a Navy patrol bomber called the Multi-Mission
Maritime Aircraft, or MMA. The plane will have a variety of sensors to
pinpoint a submarineís location: anti-submarine radar, an electro-optical-infrared
camera and Magnetic Anomaly Detection, or MAD. Rotary magazines will drop
- Five tactical consoles inside will integrate information
from all those sensors and inform the aircraft commander, headquarters
and friendly units in real time.
- What's more, the plane could launch Harpoon missiles
from two racks under each wing, or from a weapons bay aft of the wing,
which could also carry torpedoes, mines or nuclear or conventional depth
bombs. The MMA will have a receptacle to take on more fuel in flight so
it can extend a patrol for up to 21 hours.
- The planes would replace the Navy's fleet of 223 Lockheed
P-3 Orion undersea warfare and reconnaissance planes and EP-3E electronic
intelligence planes, like the one forced to land on the Chinese island
of Hainan on April 1, 2001, after it collided with a Chinese interceptor.
- P-3s have four turboprop engines, and getting the Navy
to consider a twin-engine turbojet wasn't easy. Boeing took a 737 to air
stations around the country and Europe to show Navy aviators a twin-jet
could do the job -- even on one engine if it had to -- and helped Boeing
secure the contract over rival Lockheed Martin, which proposed an updated
turboprop plane for the mission.
- "I love the P-3," said Tim Norgart, who commanded
a wing of P-3s at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station before retiring from
the Navy and joining Boeingís MMA program. "It always brought
me home. But I can't see my granddaughter walking out to the flight line
to a propeller plane in 2050."
- The world has changed since the P-3 was developed in
the 1950s, but the submarine threat hasn't gone away, Norgart said. Currently,
42 nations operate diesel-electric submarines, and that technology could
negate Americaís cutting-edge weaponry. "Can you imagine us
deploying the (nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) Carl Vinson to the Gulf
with one of those submarines unaccounted for?" he asked.
- It shouldn't be that hard to imagine a civil airliner
converted to a weapons-packing warplane -- the P-3 itself was based on
the Lockheed Electra airliner. A British plane with a similar mission,
the Nimrod, is based on the de Havilland Comet jetliner.
- Under a $3.9 billion Navy contract awarded last June,
Boeing will build seven 737 MMAs for testing. The plane's design has begun
its 3,000 hours of testing in wind tunnels. First flight will be in 2008
and delivery in 2009. It would enter service in 2013. Ultimately, the Navy
will need 108 of the planes, a deal that would be worth $20 billion.
- A production contract will be good news for the city
of Renton, Washington, where 737s are built. Boeing's factory there, with
space for four production lines, went to two lines because of the worldwide
airline downturn. The discontinuation of the larger 757 in October reduced
production floor space even further. The 737 MMA will be built on a separate,
security-controlled assembly line in Renton. The completed planes will
be flown to Seattle's Boeing Field for modification into bombers.
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