WASHINGTON The U.S. Navy is expected to announce soon that Boeing Co's P-8A aircraft, a long-range maritime surveillance plane based on the company's 737 airliner, is ready for initial operational use, sources familiar with the program said.
The Navy plans to buy 117 of the new anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare planes to replace its P-3 spy planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Boeing won the contract to build the P-8A planes in 2004 and the plane had its first flight in 2009.
The Navy's declaration of "initial operational capability," or IOC, will pave the way for the plane's first deployment in December, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Boeing, which is also building eight of the new planes for India, will have a P-8A aircraft on display at the Dubai air show that begins on Sunday.
The decision will enable the Navy to deploy its first P-8A squadron this winter for operational missions, said a Navy official speaking on background.
"This program milestone supports Navy plans and operational force structure for the maritime patrol community."
Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey declined comment on the expected decision but said an announcement would come "very soon."
"We have been working hand-in-glove with the Navy to help prepare for the first fleet deployment," he said.
The P-8A was on track to achieve IOC as planned when the program began, a rare feat for a major weapons program, Ramey said.
So far, under contracts awarded in 2011, 2012 and 2013, Boeing is building 37 P-8A Poseidon aircraft for the Navy. It had delivered 12 through October.
Boeing's P-8A program manager, Rick Heerdt, has said the program is meeting all cost and schedule milestones as the company ramps up production and airplane deliveries.
Boeing says the new aircraft will provide more combat capability for the Navy using a smaller force and less infrastructure than the P-3s. The P-8As have an extended global reach, greater payload capacity, higher operating altitude, and an open systems architecture that make it easier to implement future upgrades.
(This story was corrected to fix in 10th paragraph to show IOC not yet achieved)
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa and Lisa Lambert Editing by John Wallace and Christopher Wilson)