By Raju Gopalakrishnan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The star attraction at Asia's biggest arms and aerospace bazaar is an outwardly unassuming aircraft parked in a distant corner of the tarmac, past the sleek jet fighters and menacing attack helicopters.
An operational P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft is on public display for the first time, with its manufacturer, Boeing
Many of the uniformed officers from Asia's militaries who are visiting the biennial Singapore Airshow make a beeline for the aircraft.
For the most part, the Poseidon is a Boeing 737, the world's most commonly seen passenger jet. But first looks can be deceiving - this plane can be fitted with torpedoes, depth charges and anti-ship missiles. Inside are packed some of the world's most advanced avionics, radars and sensors, making it the only long-range marine patrol aircraft that can hunt and destroy submarines.
"When you want the best long-range anti-submarine warfare aircraft in that class, we have the product that's most developed," said Chris Raymond, an executive vice president in Boeing's defense, space and security division.
Defense analysts say maritime surveillance is the most pressing security need in East and Southeast Asia, made up of predominantly littoral states. Rival maritime claims that have pitted China, which has one of the world's fastest growing militaries, against Japan and other Asian nations have made the South and East China Seas dangerous flashpoints.
Piracy and smuggling are also rife in the region. And natural disasters strike with depressing regularity, leading to a need for search and rescue aircraft.
"Maritime patrol is the buzzword at the moment, especially in Singapore," said Gareth Jennings, an aviation expert at IHS Jane's.
"Obviously, the elephant in the room is China. Everything is kind of geared at China's perceived growing political and military influence in the region."
At about $175 million apiece, the Poseidon is however too expensive an option for most nations. Besides the United States, India has bought eight P-8 variants and is in talks on exercising options for four more.
News reports have said New Delhi may consider buying another 12 additional aircraft, but Boeing officials said this had not yet been discussed.
Australia, which is a partner in the development of the Poseidon, has not placed an order, but could do so soon.
Raymond, the Boeing official, said the company was talking to several potential customers, including at the airshow, but would not give details.
"We are involved in operation analysis and some of the early pricing and configuration discussions with a number of countries," he said.
Globally, the company hopes to sell 100 Poseidons to countries other than the United States, he said.
But several manufacturers offer options lower down the price scale.
"Many countries want a variety of capabilities for their maritime patrol aircraft, including the ability to search for submarines," said Richard Hjelmberg, the company's chief salesman for maritime surveillance aircraft.
"But not all of them have the budget for that. And when we talk to them, we ask if they really need all of that capability, which comes at a high price. What we find is that they are happy with an aircraft that can provide comprehensive maritime surveillance and allows them to monitor their coast, and we offer that solution."
Potential customers could include Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The latter three are locked in disputes with China over overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Other aircraft in this segment include a marine patrol variant of the CASA/IPTN CN-235, a plane jointly developed by Airbus Military
Lockheed Martin Corp
And although Japan is currently not exporting military aircraft, Kawasaki Heavy Industries <7012.T> is developing a maritime patrol aircraft called the P-1 for Japan's Self Defense Force.
Boeing itself has teamed up with Bombardier
The market for this aircraft, called the Boeing MSA, could be about $10 billion over the next 10 years, company officials say. It will cost about one-third of the Poseidon, or about $60 million, which could make it attractive for several countries in the region.
The plane will be shown to customers later this year.
"We have customers we are talking to who may end up with a combination of P-8 and MSA," said Fred Smith, a director of business development at Boeing Defense.
"They have a long-range requirement for anti-submarine warfare and for weapons but they also have a requirement where they want a smaller airplane to do other missions on a daily basis as well.
"You can see who has got maritime domain issues or concerns, and those are the types of folks we are talking to about this airplane," Smith added. "This part of the world offers a lot of opportunities because you have a lot of countries with a lot of coastline and a lot of concerns."
(Additional reporting by Siva Govindasamy and Anshuman Daga; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)