P-8 Poseidon display flight
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon during its display at the Dubai air show on November 18, 2013 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Alberto Riva

The $35 billion, brand-new airplane that the U.S. Navy wants as its primary hunter of enemy submarines is getting its first workout doing something very different. The Navy has deployed its Boeing P-8A Poseidon to the Indian Ocean to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, using its advanced sensors to try and spot any debris on the ocean from a possible crash.

Late last week, the Navy said it was sending one Poseidon to Kuala Lumpur from Okinawa, the Japanese island where six of them were deployed last November on the airplane’s first operational engagement. Taking off from Malaysia’s capital, the Poseidon has been patrolling the skies over the eastern Indian Ocean, looking for signs of the missing Boeing 777.

For the P-8A, built by the Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA) to find and sink submarines and ships, the assignment is a chance to prove itself at sea surveillance, after a lackluster debut led the Pentagon to pan its new plane as ineffective.

The 2013 annual report by Michael Gilmore, chief of the Pentagon testing office, was leaked before publication to Bloomberg News, which published in January a story that called the current version of the Poseidon ineffective. According to the report, the Poseidon has deficiencies in some of its systems that make it “not effective for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission" as well as "not effective for wide area anti-submarine search,” which is its primary role.

It's not uncommon for modern military aircraft, which feature several complex systems, to have teething problems, which are often corrected with time. And the Navy has announced no changes to its plan to field 117 Poseidons by around 2020; it has 13 in service, almost half of which are now in the Asia-Pacific theater of operations, reflecting the focus of the Obama administration's defense policy on the so-called pivot to that region.

The P-8 is meant to take the place of the Lockheed P-3 Orion, a 1950s turboprop design used in several variants by many countries (some of which, like Australia and the U.S. itself, have sent Orions to help search for flight MH370). The P-8 is based on the Boeing 737 series 800 airliner, and is readily identifiable from its lack of passenger windows. It carries a crew of only nine people, as opposed to the 150 that usually fit on the passenger version.

P-8 weapons bay
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon flies at the Dubai air show on November 18, 2013, showing its open weapons bay. Alberto Riva

When going after enemy vessels, it carries a variety of armaments including depth charges and the AGM-88 Harpoon anti-ship missile, but is unarmed on the missions to find Malaysian 370. Its main tool in the search role is the AN/APY-10 radar, made by the Raytheon Co. (NYSE:RTN). The radar, housed in the nose of the aircraft, is sensitive enough to find submarine periscopes amid waves and clutter, an ability that could be important when looking for debris in a vast ocean.

On a typical search mission, a P-8 takes just two hours to survey a 60 by 60 mile (100 km) square of ocean, a total area of 3,600 square miles. According to a Pentagon spokesperson quoted in the Bloomberg story, the Poseidon actually performs that mission pretty well already, thanks to sensors including the radar that “provide an effective, all-weather surface target search.” Which is exactly what the Poseidon is doing in the Indian Ocean. With two caveats: The third-biggest ocean on earth is about 28 million square miles, or 72 million square kilometers -- nine times bigger than the continental United States. And, of course, the target the Poseidon is looking for may not be there at all.