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Thursday, May 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Boeing to find out Friday whether it will build new sub hunters

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Tim Norgart, left, director of Boeing's Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft program, talks with Bryan Lee, center, and Robert Turner, who are working on converting a 737 jet into what could be a new anti-submarine aircraft.
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A converted Boeing 737 jet, its wings bristling with missiles, could be the Navy's pick as the next-generation aircraft for hunting and killing submarines.

After a four-year-long competition, the Defense Acquisition Board meets tomorrow at the Pentagon to award the $2.25 billion project.

With hundreds of jobs and a huge order for 737s at stake, the outcome is unpredictable.

Boeing is up against Lockheed Martin, which is offering an updated version of the anti-submarine turboprop that does the job today.

If Boeing wins the Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) contract, the Navy will order at least 110 of its 737s.

Follow-on orders from other countries could bump that up to 300 jets, a massive boost to an already healthy 737 order book that would significantly extend the life of Boeing's plant in Renton.

A Boeing win could also create about 800 primarily white-collar engineering, programming and technical positions in Kent, where the MMA systems are integrated and tested, the company said.

Lockheed has 40 years of incumbency on its side. It built the current aging fleet of Navy anti-submarine airplanes, called P-3s.

Championing Boeing's case is Tim Norgart, a former wing commander of four P-3 squadrons based at Whidbey Island.

With 25 years as a tactical coordinator and mission commander, Norgart has anti-submarine warfare in his genes. His father flew P-2s a generation earlier.

Norgart, who joined Boeing as MMA director after leaving the Navy in 2000, is a passionate salesman for the company's radical bid to replace the current propeller-driven P-3s with faster jet aircraft.

Boeing's proposed Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft is a converted 737 jet.
"I was recruited as hard by (Lockheed). I chose to come here. For me, this is the solution," Norgart said. "I can't see the Navy flying props in 2025. The technology has gone beyond that."

That argument resonates with Paul Nisbet, aerospace analyst with JSA Research.

"Boeing is the dark horse here. But they've really made a bold proposal," said Nisbet. "Who needs 20-year-old technology?"

The outcome will be made public after the contract is signed, as early as next week.

The anti-submarine mission

The initial in P-3 stands for Pursuit. The MMA aircraft's mission is to speed to a war zone ahead of any U.S. military deployment and sweep the oceans for any submarine or surface threats to the Navy's fleet.

Numerous electronic and sonic sensors search for signals as the plane flies low over the ocean, patiently crisscrossing for hours until it makes contact and identifies a submarine's location.

Originally deployed during the Cold War, these airplanes were used during much of Norgart's Navy service to track Soviet nuclear subs — though no submarines were ever destroyed in that superpower stand-off.

In the newly unstable post-Cold War world, the underwater threat is still considered deadly.

In the Falklands War in the early 1980s, two Argentine diesel-electric submarines threatened the British task force, constricting the freedom of the British surface fleet. Lurking underwater with the engines switched off, such submarines are quieter and harder to detect than nuclear subs.

Some 42 countries operate diesel-electric submarines today.

"Some are not our friends," said Norgart. "Are we willing to risk a $3 billion dollar aircraft carrier? We can't afford not to have this capability."

Bold vs. conservative

The big difference between the bids is the basic airplane.

Lockheed Martin's Orion21 is a four-engine turboprop based on the airframe of the current in-service P-3 Orion.
Boeing's pitch to the Navy is that a modern jet will get to the war zone much faster and more reliably than a turboprop.

And with a mass production line and worldwide spare-parts support system already in place, Boeing claims the Navy will save money by using a converted commercial airliner rather than building a unique airplane for this one job.

To answer doubts that a 737 could loiter for hours at slower speeds — the hallmark of the MMA mission — last fall Boeing flew a 737 business jet on a series of test flights, cruising at 250 feet above the Atlantic and buzzing oceangoing freighters.

A tour-de-force in marketing, the successful tests showed that the 737 met Navy requirements.

Lockheed's P-3 production line in Marietta, Ga., closed in 1995. With no prototype to test, Boeing's rival has been able only to simulate operation of its proposed P-3 upgrade, the Orion21. Jack Crisler, Lockheed Martin's director of MMA business development, dismisses Boeing's test.

"Boeing has flown a 737," said Crisler, "It's not an MMA. It's not weaponized; it's not missionized."

Crisler said the 737's air-worthiness will need to be recertified after its wings are hardened to hold 3,000 pounds of missiles apiece, a bomb bay is installed in the lower fuselage and holes are cut in internal pressure bulkheads to accommodate more weapons.

In contrast, he said, upgrading the engines, the weapons, and the electronic systems and sensors on the existing P-3 airframe — "a proven, rugged, weaponized aircraft" — is much less risky a step for the military.

And though Boeing meets the Navy's threshold requirement for "endurance" — spending four hours flying low above the water in search of subs — Crisler said that the turboprop can stay much longer on station.

"Ours is the low-cost, low-risk solution," said Crisler.

Deciding the winner

The Navy faces a stark choice.

"A turboprop versus a jet does create a speed versus an endurance difference," said Navy Commander Mike Hewitt, MMA requirements officer, "But both offers can deliver the capability we need."

One of Boeing's ongoing ethics debacles began when employees stole documents from MMA rival Lockheed to win a bigger share of a rocket-launch contract.

And Boeing's deal to convert 767s into military refueling tankers has been dogged by ethical and financial controversy; on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld placed any decision about the deal on hold for six months.

Could those procurement-scandal problems affect the outcome of this competition?

"Except for the high-profile tanker deal and the Delta rocket launches, business is going on as usual," said analyst Nisbet. "Even with the scandals, the company got $50 billion in fresh orders (from the government) last year."

If Boeing loses out, he suggested, it'll be because its nontraditional proposal demands that the Navy change its way of thinking.

Yet that's also the strength of Boeing's bid.

The current P-3s are on average 30-year-old airplanes, about one third of them slated for retirement over the next two years. For Norgart, it's unthinkable to ask the next generation of Navy pilots not to move up to a jet.

"It would be the same as me flying the P-2s that my dad flew," Norgart said.Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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