Have you ever wondered what it is like to chase enemy subs from the air or to hunt pirates off the coast of Somalia? Foxtrot Alpha gives you an unprecedented look into the world of a US Navy Maritime Patrol pilot, a job that continues to change and evolve as fast as our increasingly complicated world does.
Recent months have seen the U.S. Navy's P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion featured in the news frequently. Search operations for MH370 and the recent 'Pivot towards the Pacific' have highlighted the utility and these aircraft and their ability to gather information on ships, submarines, and land targets. Foxtrot Alpha recently had the opportunity to work with a pilot that has flown both the P-3 and the P-8 in an effort to unveil the realities of the modern Maritime Patrol mission and how these aircraft have been used everywhere from Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror to the vast waters of the Western Pacific, as well as how they could be used creatively in future conflicts.
I remember watching the Blue Angels fly at an air show when I was seven...
'What brought you here,' is a question Naval Aviators ask each other a lot. The personal story is always unique. I remember watching the Blue Angels fly at an airshow when I was seven. That experience stuck with me and as I got older I was convinced I wanted to do some type of tactically focused flying that was only available in the service.
Without a doubt, my most memorable moment from flight school was my solo formation ride while flying the T-34C Tubro Mentor. Two students with probably less than 50 hours of flight experience take two turbine-powered aircraft and fly a formation event with an instructor tailing them in a third plane. The feeling of responsibility and accomplishment was amazing. A close second to this memory was my last instrument training flights in the T-44C, which is basically a militarized Beechcraft King Air. We flew an approach in a driving rainstorm with over 50 mph winds using an archaic navigation station called a Non Directional Beacon. On a calm day the NDB swings steadily. On this storming day, the indicator needle was absolutely haywire. Instead of several minutes long, our final approach was 35 seconds because the gusting tailwind was so intense. That day I gained a lot of respect for our pilot ancestors and the challenges they had with so little technology while facing the same risks presented by Mother Nature.
You really can't overestimate how important open and secure shipping lanes are to the world economy...
After earning my 'Wings of Gold' I was sent to NAS Jacksonville for replacement training in the P-3C Orion. While the aircraft started life simply as a submarine hunting and patrol platform, in five decades it has seen a great deal of change.
The three main mission areas of the P-3C are Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW), and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). The Orion is a pretty versatile platform and it has lent itself very well to modification with new sensors, systems, and payloads over time. Honestly, it's the versatility of the platform that kept it relevant and off the budgetary chopping block during decades of declining numbers of aircraft and perceived threat. People don't get to hear a great deal about the aircraft largely because it has so much interaction with submarines. Submarine operations are by their very nature sensitive, and if you're hunting them, it's sensitive by extension.
ASW is the core mission set of the community. The Orion can transit to an area at high-speed and get sensors in the water quickly. While the P-3 is not as capable as a submarine's sonar array or SOSUS, the ability to reposition quickly is key. ASW is all about the time from the last known position of the sub in question. Geometry rules everything. A P-3C can quickly get on-station and get sonobuoys in the water, increasing the chance of catching a submarine by minimizing the time from its last point of detection.
The ability to carry weapons and attack that submarine if needed completes the Kill Chain, all in a single package. Submarines are inherently stealthy and pose an enormous threat to military and commercial shipping. Being able to detect and track these boats for extended periods of time was key throughout the Cold War and is just as important today.
You really cannot overestimate how important open and secure shipping lanes are to the world economy. Sink one or two cargo carriers or supertankers and shipping insurance rates go through the roof. You make shipping rates too expensive and Asia can't import raw materials. Factories shut down from lack of supplies. Without finished goods getting shipped to developed markets, big box retail shelves go empty. Wal-Mart's 'warehouse on wheels' grinds to a halt. If you don't have secure shipping lanes the globalized world economy goes belly up. The scary part of this reality is that any tin-pot dictator with 200 million USD can buy a top of the line Kilo class diesel attack submarine. That's a small price to pay to wreck the global economy.
For more on how America develops ways to make its submarines as quiet as possible click on this Foxtrot Alpha special feature.
We could rearm with AGM-65 Maverick and provide overwatch of an enemy nation's port, engaging any small craft that might depart to threaten the Carrier Strike Group...
The great part about flying maritime patrol is that we have two other key mission sets beside ASW. The P-3C is equipped to perform anti surface warfare (ASuW), which means attacking targets on the surface of the ocean, and surface surveillance, either independently or in conjunction with a deployed Carrier Strike Group (CSG).
The Orion carries a powerful radar system, an Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite to detect and classify radar emissions, and an electro-optical turret which includes FLIR capability. For long-range engagements the P-3C carries the AGM-84 Harpoon sea-skimming anti-ship missile and the AGM-84K SLAM-ER.
SLAM-ER has fold-out wings for increased range and an infrared seeker to manually re-target or fine-tune the missile's terminal attack phase during the 'end-game' of an engagement. For short range shots against smaller targets the Orion carriers the AGM-65 Maverick. A good example of the ASuW capabilities of the P-3C was demonstrated when an Orion attacked a Libyan patrol boat that was shelling civilians near the port of Misrata.
The P-3C also has the ability to conduct stand-off targeting of enemy warships over the horizon using a sub-mode of the aircraft's radar. This mode, known as Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR), uses the motion of the ship in the waves to produce an image of the vessel. Operators can match this ISAR image to silhouettes of known enemy warships. This allows for identification of enemy surface combatants well beyond visual range and outside the reach of enemy air defenses.
The P-3C also brings long endurance and capable imaging sensors to the ISR mission set. Orion crews have operated extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing overwatch for ground combat missions, acting as an 'eye in the sky' during convoy operations, and supporting special operations teams by embarking an observer. The P-3C frequently carries a 'rider' from the ground combat forces involved with a particular mission to act as a liaison. These riders can better understand the needs of soldiers on the ground and provide higher situational awareness (SA) to everyone involved. The P-3C can use it's electro-optical and IR cameras to stream video to ground commanders in real-time or it can use its imaging Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to peer through clouds and develop diagrams of ground targets and define enemy's order of battle.
Overall, the P-3C and provide very useful capabilities to a commander. For example, a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) commander could task an Orion to screen the carrier from submarine threats while passing through a geographical choke point. The next day, the very same crew and aircraft could re-arm with AGM-65's and provide overwatch of an enemy nation's port, engaging any small craft that might depart to threaten the carrier. The next day, the same crew and aircraft can launch on an ISR mission, mapping possible mobile surface to air missile (SAM) sites to determine whether launchers or radars are present, all while staying safely outside of these air defense emplacements' range. The flexibility and capability inherent to a modern P-3C brings a great deal to the fight.
Anti-Submarine Warfare is a game of chess, & the aircraft is always playing from a slight disadvantage...
As much as folks are fascinated with weapons themselves the truth is that most weapons are useless without a good sensor to point them in the right direction. When it comes to the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) realm, the key sensors we use are expendable hydrophones, which are more commonly known as 'sonobuoys.' These buoys are dropped from the aircraft and once in the water they deploy a sensitive microphone to acoustically detect the presence of a submarine. Once detected, tactical operators on-board the Orion will strategically place additional buoys to provide target motion analysis (TMA) and a running track of the submarine that is being hunted. Keeping a solid track allows for precise weapons placement if the submarine demonstrates hostile intent.
The best description of the inherent difficulty presented by aerial ASW operations was actually given to me by a helicopter pilot, and it stuck with me because it encapsulates what a tough science it is to track a submarine. Imagine soldiers on the ground on a foggy day, being fired on by enemies in a jeep. The jeep can't be seen through the mist. It's driving on a road and because the soldiers can't see it, they have to listen to the sound of the rifle fire and guess the location to fire back. Sound doesn't travel instantly, and because the jeep isn't close by, by the time the soldiers hear where the gunshots came from, the jeep has already moved on. The soldiers have to make their best guess where the jeep is, being as the information they get is always a bit late to arrive and thus inaccurate.
We usually can't see a submarine visually, unless it is operating in very shallow water and that water is extremely clear. Because of the speed of sound and the fact that our computers must process data to separate the sound of the submarine from the sound of ocean waves, and rain, and shrimp feeding and so on, there is always a slight delay. ASW is a game of chess, and the aircraft is always playing from a slight disadvantage. Placing sensors or weapons precisely in a constantly changing water column is definitely a challenging and an interesting task to say the least.
Our sonobuoys are five inches in diameter and weigh 30 to 40 pounds each depending on the particular variant. The most common buoy is known as a SSQ-53 DIFAR buoy, referred to as a 'Pointer' because it provides bearing information in relation to a submarine. This buoy contains only a passive hydrophone, basically a sensitive underwater microphone with direction finding capability. The next most common buoys is known as a SSQ-62 DICASS buoy, which uses a transmitter array to send out active sonar 'pings' to detect a submarine. For decades this buoy has been called a 'Cadillac' by aircrews, because rumor has it that when initially built, the buoy cost so much it was nearly as expensive as a new Cadillac.
The Orion also carries expendable temperature measuring buoys to provide a detailed observation of the water column itself, this helps predict how sound will move in that water column. Sound waves bend depending on water temperature, so how sound will move has a huge effect on how and where we can detect a target.
We also carry a sensor called a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), which sits in the tail stinger of the P-3C. Submarines are so large that they will displace the magnetic field of the earth due to the metallic components in their hull. If we're low enough, flying over or close to the submarine will trigger the MAD and reveal the presence of the sub. Submarine forces go to great lengths to reduce their magnetic signature while in-port by wrapping electric cables around their hulls and running current through them. This is called 'deperming' and while it will reduce the signature of the hull, it won't hide it completely. Physics is a cruel mistress indeed.
A P-3C weapons bay carries a grim reminder of the Cold War inside it...
To attack submarine targets, the P-3C carries several variants of lightweight air-launched torpedoes. The Mk-46 is widely produced and was originally built during the Cold War. Software updates have improved the seeker head and computer logic, making it more effective. The Mk-50 was built in response to fast, deep diving, and double-hulled Soviet attack submarines such as the Alfa class SSN, which were so fast they could out-run and out-dive the torpedoes of their day. The MK-50 has a shaped charge warhead which cuts through hulls in the same way an anti-tank warhead is shaped to punch through the heavy armor on a tank. This makes the weapon much more likely to score a kill. The Mk-54 marries the body of the Mk-46 with the seeker head of the Mk-50 and the command logic from the Mk-48 ADCAP carried by our submarines. All of these weapons are carried on the P-3 in a bomb bay that sits behind the pilots and below the tactical officers.
A P-3C weapons bay carries a grim reminder of the Cold War inside it. During the nuclear age, the Orion routinely carried nuclear depth bombs to target Soviet missile submarines that were about to launch their sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM's). In fact, as a young student I received cockpit mock-ups that still depicted the nuclear arming panels where both pilots would insert their firing keys and provide dual concurrence to release the 'nuke.' The panels have long been removed and the aircraft no longer carries the wiring for nuclear weapons, but many aircraft still are equipped with the reinforced weapons pylon where the 'special weapons' were once carried. It's a sobering thought about a very dangerous time in mankind's history.
A lot of people have seen photos of a P-3C armed with AIM-9 Sidewinders and have asked me whether I've ever carried the missiles or trained to dogfight. I have to laugh a bit when they ask that question. The AIM-9 was tested on the Orion, I was told due to the experiences the British had in the Falklands campaign. Allegedly RAF Nimrods encountered Argentinian patrol aircraft by chance during scouting missions. Unable to take action, the Brits quickly armed their Nimrods with infrared guided air-to-air missiles. Maybe that's where the program came from. I don't know for sure exactly, although I do know I sure would have loved to have mixed it up with an F/A-18 and trained to employ the weapon!
I should tell you that it has long been a Maritime Patrol Community rumor that a 'black' P-3B flown by the CIA over China shot down a MiG with a Sidewinder. This was allegedly in the 1960s. I have zero information to back that claim up but author David Reade in the book Age of Orion makes claims that this incident occurred. I suppose we'll never know what really happened. By the time the truth is allowed out, anyone who flew these planes or operated them in such a manner will be long gone.
To read about the world's largest submarine, the Russian Typhoon Class, click on this Foxtrot Alpha special feature.
As we left, the sub popped his periscope out of the water. How amazed must he have been to see not one, but two Orions right overhead...
As a kid, I read every Tom Clancy book I could get my hands on, and in several books the author featured the Los Angeles class attack submarine USS Dallas (SSN-700). On my first mission tracking an actual submarine in an exercise, the target submarine happened to be Dallas! What a strange co-incidence and good memory to look back on. Dallas fought hard that day and while we tracked her for a good part of the exercise, she did prove very elusive. I have the highest respect for our submariners and am truly glad that they are on our side. They are a very professional, effective, and lethal group and I would honestly hate to have them as an adversary.
One of my most memorable flights was just before becoming an aircraft commander. I'm not at liberty to say where we were, but we were the first on scene to lay out buoys to trap a foreign submarine as it transited through a geographical choke point. We had already laid a large pattern when we received a new location as to where the sub might be. The P-3C carries 84 sonobuoys and we had already laid almost two thirds of our sensors before we gained a "sniff." We called for a relief aircraft but were told it would be three hours till one could be there. We simply didn't have enough buoys to track the elusive sub using our original game-plan. We decided to drop buoys one at a time, leaving gaps between coverage and making very educated predictions on where and when the sub might re-appear. We dropped our final buoy just as our relief aircraft arrived to track. As we left, the sub popped his periscope out of the water. How amazed must he have been to see not one, but two Orions right overhead!
Another flight I will always remember found us flying against a very capable foreign submarine. Because the target was so capable all the commanders and brass in the operating area were interested and closely scrutinizing our missions. After tracking it super-sub for a few hours, it passed near a freighter. This is not uncommon, but what was uncommon was that he didn't reappear after the freighter moved on. Afterward we discovered the sub had entered a current where the water temperature changes and therefore the way sound moves changes drastically as well. Now we couldn't hear the sub and had no idea where he might have gone.
My crew made an educated guess on where we would go if we were the sub skipper and we laid buoys there in hopes that the target would stumble into them. Those 45 minutes were some of the longest in my life. I wouldn't be able to look my buddies in the eye back in the ready room if me and my crew lost this crucial sub. Our squadron would look bad in front of all the brass and a great training opportunity would be lost. After interminable waiting, my operator yelled so loud from his station that I could hear him from the cockpit over the drone of the P-3's four notoriously loud turboprop engines. The sub had faded in on our sensors and we had caught him again. We passed the contact over to our relief aircraft with just one buoy remaining!
P-3 crews still refer to the 'Decade in the Desert' to describe the years that we spent patrolling combat zones in the Middle East and Southwest Asia...
The end of the Cold War saw the enormous fleet of Soviet submarines return to port, many permanently. This drawdown had an incredible effect on the maritime patrol community. Almost overnight, the Navy cut from 24 P-3 squadrons down to 12. Think about losing half your force and number of aircraft in less than five years! A 'peace dividend' was a wonderful thing for the country, but it cut the force deeply.
During the 1990's, the P-3 community was an organization in search of a mission. It's primary reason for being would never go away, but how can admirals justify their budgets when there are no non-allied subs out of port for months at a time? To their credit, the community flexed. They found work patrolling the Adriatic during the wars in former Yugoslavia. P-3C crews fired AGM-84 SLAM missiles into Kosovo during Operation Allied Force and they also worked closely with DEA and U.S. Coast Guard assets during counter narcotics operations in the Caribbean.
The beginning of the Global War on Terror and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan turned the U.S. defense establishment upside down once again. The P-3 community was no different. Maritime patrol crews saw themselves go from open-ocean patrolling and surveillance in the littorals to operations over the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan supporting combat operations or patrolling for IED's in Iraq's tumultuous Anbar province. Defense publications claim that the advanced APS-149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System was used extensively during both wars, providing imagery of overland targets of interest. Maritime crews still refer to the 'Decade in the Desert' to describe the years that the P-3C spent patrolling combat zones in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
My worst fear was that we'd get there too late and see the pirates already on-board with the crew as hostages or possibly dead...
While I hit the fleet towards the tail end of Iraq operations, I did have the chance to deploy to Djibouti, in East Africa. Djibouti is a tiny country sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eretria, and Somali. For years, the camp I was stationed at has been a base for anti-piracy operations, has hosted USAF Predator UAV's, and generally provided a foothold to the unstable areas of East Africa. We flew primarily maritime security missions to detect and warn merchant ships of the presence of pirate vessels.
My most memorable time in Djibouti found us breaking up an attack on a Malaysian cargo ship. The Malaysian crew radioed a distress call reporting a pirate attack in progress. We were about 180nm away from getting to the scene, which equates to about 30 minutes time. We were so far out to sea and far away from a divert air base that we couldn't fly at top speed as we simply wouldn't have the gas to get home. The waiting was terrible. My worst fear was that we'd get there too late and see the pirates already on-board with the crew as hostages or possibly dead. Once the pirates were on-board there was little we could do.
Pirates use converted fishing vessels called 'motherships' to patrol and speedboats called 'skiffs' to raid their target vessel. Because the skiffs aren't very fast in high seas, or very seaworthy for that matter, the pirates have to be ahead or abeam of the target ship for the skiffs to successfully engage. It's a game of geometry and faster merchant ships can elude the pirates largely with their speed alone. The simple fact is that pirates have to wait days if not weeks for prey to come along and be in just the right position to be successful.
When we dropped below the clouds we locked our EO/IR turret onto the skiff. I remember the pirate captain in the skiff turning up to look directly at us. You could tell by his body language he was in charge. I'll never forget it. You could see him turn his head, look at us, and you could literally see him thinking. For ten seconds, the skiff sped on towards the ship, getting closer and closer. Then they slowed. The captain followed us with his eyes as we circled overhead, putting our plane between the skiff and the ship. He must have been thinking: 'days of waiting and when my prey is in sight, the Americans show up. 800 miles off the coast of Somalia and the Americans show up now!?!?' Then you could see him gesture, and we thought he was probably yelling at the crew in the skiff. The skiff slowly turned its bow downwind, away from the Malaysian ship and started heading back to the mothership. The merchant ship was safe. But watching that pirate captain think from our perch far away and high up in the sky and watching him literally weigh profit against freedom was a powerful thing. I will never forget that.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright red flash and jumped in my seat as I heard an alarm scream...
One of my most memorable moments flying the P-3C was coming home to the States after a large joint exercise in Lossiemouth, Scotland. We were midway across the Atlantic flying west at 24,000 feet just before midnight. Flying the Orion across the ocean is always challenging and interesting, especially over the cold and storm blown North Atlantic at night. The plane is barely stable in pitch and speed when it is heavy, and if the center of gravity is aft, it is even less so. In fact, you can feel it in the controls when crew or passengers move toward the the back of the aircraft. If your radar operator gets up to use the lavatory, you will feel the control pressure change as he walks back aft and then forward to his console.
On such nights the Northern Lights may be visible and the high frequency (HF) radios hiss in your ear as airliners make their position reports. Fighting the plane, which rarely has an operable autopilot, is a full time job, and the noise of the radios combined with the utter blackness outside makes for a surreal experience.
I was flying with a junior copilot while my commanding officer rested in the bunk back in the rear of the aircraft. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright red flash and jumped in my seat as I heard an alarm scream. I looked to see what was wrong with the aircraft, but the light and alarm were gone as quickly as they had came. As I turned to ask my flight engineer "was that a fire warning," the fire warning tone blared for one second and the fire light on the #3 engine lit up. Then it abruptly went out. For the next two minutes, the alarms would go off and then extinguish themselves randomly.
I was shocked watching this occur. Here we were, literally half way across the ocean, the most desolate part of the trip, and an engine was about to fail. This off-and-on alarm could indicate a faulty sensor or it could indicate that there was a hole in the engine and 900 degree Celsius exhaust gasses were escaping from the burner cans into the nacelle. That heat could start a fire, and this far out over the cold wintery Atlantic was not the place to have that happen.
I called for my Skipper to come to the flight deck and a few moments later, we shut the engine down. We were past the equal time point, where it would take the same amount of time to continue to Canada or Maine as to return to Ireland or Scotland. We landed safely on three engines in Bangor, ME. The mechanics found a faulty fire sensor in the engine. Thank goodness it was just a busted sensor. I hope I never have to see a sick engine over the water like that again. Even with three more, one sick engine was enough.
The P-8 Poseidon is revolutionary when it comes to sensor management, data fusion, and connectivity...
Following a few deployments with the P-3C, my squadron transitioned to the new P-8A Poseidon. The P-8A is derived from the Boeing 737. The aircraft features a Boeing 737-800 fuselage mated to 737-900 wings and is equipped with raked wingtips optimized for low altitude flight and long endurance. In place of a cargo hold, the aircraft boasts additional fuel tanks and a weapons bay. The reliability, speed, and sensor capabilities equate to a significant improvement over the legacy aircraft (the P-3). In the Poseidon, the Navy married advanced sensors and communications connectivity with a modern, highly reliable and efficient airframe that already existed on the commercial marketplace.
If I sound like a Poseidon lover, well then consider me guilty. I am, and admit it honestly. The aircraft is powerful, reliable, and easy to fly. It was a challenge transitioning from a straight wing turboprop to a high altitude, swept wing jet, but I personally found the P-8A to be intuitive and comfortable to fly. The largest difference is not in flight characteristics, but rather in how the pilot interfaces with the aircraft. The P-3C is flown hands-on, with little if any automation. In the Poseidon, the pilot utilizes the Flight Management Computer and a highly advanced coupled autopilot to fly the jet. Whether flying on airway routes or positioning the aircraft to employ sensors, the Poseidon utilizes high levels of automation. This is not harder or easier than flying hands-on, simply different, and requires a different approach.
The tougher part about the jet is acting as a tactical operator and employing the sensors of the aircraft. The P-8A is revolutionary when it comes to sensor management, data fusion, and connectivity. The challenge for operators is not having insufficient sensor performance, but rather how to manage so many capable sensors, process the information, and transmit actionable data to commanders through a variety of communications networks and datalinks.
The P-8A boasts five mission crew workstations, all of which feature dual reconfigurable touchscreen displays and data entry keyboards. The ability to do any job from any workstation makes load sharing possible and is indeed critical to success during a mission. For example, during an information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions we might have extra electronic warfare operators in the seats scanning for radar emitters while another operator scans the radar and maps where those emitters are located. Conversely, during an ASW mission we can place extra acoustic operators in the seats to interpret sonar signals and track a submarine. The flexibility is extremely impressive.
The P-3C that is honestly trying to break, catch on fire, or generally kill you during any given flight...
I won't claim the P-8A does everything better than the P-3C. For one, the controls feel very different between the two aircraft. I find the P-3C to be a bit crisper on the controls, especially at low altitude and in the landing pattern. This isn't surprising, given the Orion's thick, straight wing and the swept wing and spoilers on the Poseidon. Also, the lack of a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) aboard the P-8A is a drawback.
Many folks ask if I feel less comfortable with two engines in the P-8A rather than four in the P-3C. Realistically, I'll take Poseidon any day. The reliability of the CFM-56 turbofans on the jet is generations ahead of the T-56 turboprops on the Orion. CFM-56 shutdown rates are on the order of three per million flight hours. In fact, P-8A has been flying for more than three years and has yet to have an in-flight engine shutdown. I'll take the reliability of the P-8A every time over the P-3C.
Overall, I've found the P-8A allows crew-members to focus more on tactical employment and getting every ounce of performance out of the jet's sensors and weapons. While the Orion is a very safe airplane statistically, it was designed in another age with different design philosophies. It's very hands-on and user intensive especially for pilots and flight engineers. Because of the fact that the P-3C is honestly trying to break, catch on fire, or generally kill you during any given flight, we have to devote a great deal of energy simply to operating it safely. This isn't a hit on the P-3C, any airplane of that generation is like that, and the fact that some of these birds are over 40 years old is a testament to the engineers who designed them and our maintainers who keep them flying. Because reliability is baked into the P-8, we can focus more on tactical effectiveness. The result is higher situational awareness (SA) and much better mission performance in the new jet.
For more on the P-8's emerging capabilities click on this past Foxtrot Alpha exclusive feature.
There are currently two schools of thought in the community right now when it comes to how the P-8 should be used...
Many people are curious about the capabilities of limitations of P-8A. It's interesting to note that when the Navy solicited program offers for the aircraft that became P-8A they called the project the 'Multi Mission Maritime Aircraft' or MMA. The computer systems and networks on the Poseidon are open-architecture, reconfigurable, and can grow in a low-cost, flexible manner. The stores management and data-transfer systems are all digital, meaning that the only variable for growth is cost and software upgrades. Combine the ability to 'plug and play' new sensors and weapons with the aircraft's communications connectivity, excellent crew coordination abilities and flexibility and you have a weapons system that is honestly limited only by weight, the training of it's operators, and the tasking assigned by the commander. In other words, the P-8A can be as 'Multi-Mission' as commanders desire it to be.
P-8A acquisitions and capabilities have been planned around incremental upgrades. With today's technology and budgetary environments, acquiring every capability, sensor, and weapons system concurrently is too expensive and too high-risk. P-8A hit the fleet with baseline ASW capability and a limited ASuW capability via the inclusion of AGM-84 Harpoon capability. Follow-on increments will add multi-static sonobuoys to achieve wider area detection of submarines. Future capabilities will likely feature net-enabled weapons like AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) and very likely the upcoming Long Range Anti-ship Missile or LRASM, a derivative of the AGM-158 JASSM-ER. This is all a great thing in a military that is seeing more and more platform winnowed away by budget cuts and massive "sacred-cow" programs like F-35.
Unlike the F-35, which sought a revolutionary approach with technologies such as the Distributed Aperture System and extremely advanced sensor fusion, Boeing and the Navy minimized the P-8A's risk by getting baseline capabilities online and jets out to the Fleet and then building on those technologies with steady upgrades. It's a work in progress but I think Boeing and NAVAIR had a lot to be proud of with Poseidon so far.
There are currently two schools of thought in the Maritime Patrol Community right now when it comes to how the P-8 should be used. One where it works closely along the lines of its predecessor, and follows the P-3's traditional mission sets of ASuW, ASW and limited ISR, and another where the P-8 can be adapted more dramatically for a litany of missions, including direct attack on ground targets. Personally, I believe the P-8A should also be equipped with a more robust set of weapons and sensors for the fight against smaller vessels in constrained littoral environments.
Harpoon is a great weapon, but it's too imprecise to use with civilian shipping nearby and in dense target environments close to shore. P-3C had a robust short range ASuW capability with AGM-65 Mavericks, and we saw that used in Libya. We took a major step back capability-wise with only Harpoon being deployed aboard the P-8. I would equip P-8A with an off-the-shelf targeting pod such as the AAQ-33 Sniper, which is currently found on everything from USAF F-16s to B-52s. Couple the targeting pod with short range, laser guided munitions such as AGM-65 Laser Mavericks, AGM-176 Griffon, and/or or Small Diameter Bombs and you have a lethal and persistent weapons system.
The Marines have done a similar upgrade with their KC-130 "Harvest HAWK" program and the Air Force is moving in a similar direction with it's new AC-130W Stinger II and MC-130J Combat Spear aircraft. I am actually quite curious as to why senior leadership insists on utilizing expensive bombers and fighter aircraft requiring extensive tanking to provide precision fires that can be achieved by lower cost, persistent assets such as a P-8A or C-130 in low-threat environments? Are they just in love with their 'sexy' weapons systems or do they want to get the most bang for their acquisition buck?
I also believe that P-8A should be equipped with a more robust set of radio frequency countermeasures. Long range SAM systems such as the S-300, S-400, and HQ-9 are rapidly proliferating around the globe, bringing high-value ISR platforms such as P-8A or RC-135 into threat ranges of land based air defense sites. If commanders desire intelligence up to and after the first shot of a conflict is fired, they need to provide their previously 'untouchable' ISR assets with more robust countermeasures mirroring those provided to penetrating bombers such as B-1B and B-52. A jamming pod such as ALQ-184 and a towed radar decoy such as the ALE-50 or ALE-55 would greatly benefit the Poseidon and make this high value aircraft survivable on the modern aerial battlefield.
For more on the USAF's new AC-130 gunships click on this past Foxtrot Alpha special feature.
The ability to cover huge swaths of ocean or monitor an area of interest for hours on end are hallmark maritime patrol missions, and few assets do that better than a UAV....
The Maritime patrol community is currently in an interesting time and place. We're about to retire, or 'sundown' as we say, two long-standing platforms, the P-3C and the EP-3E Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft. In their place we'll have P-8A and the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). I know many of my fellow pilots stress about losing manned platforms, but realistically it's the reality of where warfare is headed. English peasants killed hundreds of mounted French knights at Crecy with longbows while losing only a few dozen of their own. Did French chivalry whining about the 'dishonor' of their enemies make the cavalry charge more effective against archers? No. Technology changes and warfare changes with it.
Aircraft are used in war because of their speed and because of their ability to carry sensors and weapons. They don't exist to provide joy-rides for pilots. Unmanned aircraft bring more persistence, and persistence is what an air-breathing intelligence gathering platform offers over a satellite. The ability to cover huge swaths of ocean or monitor an area of interest for hours on end are hallmark maritime patrol missions, and few assets do that better than a UAV. There's no use fighting the inevitable. Sadly I think too many of our pilots, senior officers included, are more in love with the physical act of flying than they are the art of war-fighting. That's a shame.
It is worth considering what the MQ-4C Triton can and cannot do. Any Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations by Triton will likely be limited by satellite bandwidth. I'm speaking from my own knowledge and assumptions here, but consider the task at hand. If you want real-time data off a UAV you have to transmit it via a satellite uplink to a ground monitoring station. Think how costly this bandwidth is during peacetime. Is it more cost-effective to simply wait till the MQ-4C lands and accept that the downloaded intel will then be hours old? Maybe or maybe not.
Now let's consider a wartime scenario. Other nations have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, including kinetic hard-kill capabilities against low Earth orbit satellites. While this isn't a concern for geo-synchronous communications satellites, the ability to jam or spoof UAV satellite uplinks was possibly demonstrated during the loss of the RQ-170 over Iran. How secure exactly are our satellite uplinks? Are they safe from cyber attack? Will this bandwidth be available to the Navy during wartime or will more pressing communications take precedence? This is all above my pay-grade but realize that UAV endurance doesn't come without a price.
There's another factor to consider and that's the nature of the EP-3E's mission. EP-3s are capable of supporting a Carrier Strike Group's air wing by providing communications and signals intelligence support. This is a distinctly 'real-time' function as enemy air defense operators may only speak for a few moments or activate SAM radars for several seconds. The latency (time delay) inherent in satellite communications and control systems could possibly mean the difference between life and death for strike pilots in F/A-18 Hornets heading into the target area. If you take away EP-3E, you may lose that real-time SIGINT and COMINT capability.
The good news is that P-8A boasts a very capable ESM system. The ALQ-240 system is derived from the ESM system on-board the EA-18G Growler jamming aircraft. The system has the capability to detect and geo-locate hostile threat emitters and support strike forces. Whether the Navy chooses to leverage this capability or rely on the Air Force for non-organic strike support with aircraft such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint is yet to be seen.
For more on the MQ-4C Triton's capabilities click on this exclusive Foxtrot Alpha feature.
The funny thing is that MMA was originally envisioned as providing tanking services to the air wing...
Observers have compared the ASW and ASuW capabilities of the S-3 with the P-3C and asked how retiring this platform effected Naval Aviation. The truth is it effected the air wing enormously, but not in the ways one might think. With the loss of the Viking, the air wing had to rely on fast strike aircraft for organic tanking. Plugging tanks and buddy stores on an already short-legged strike fighter such as the legacy F/A-18C or even the upgraded F/A-18F is not nearly as effective as a dedicated tanker aircraft with long legs.
The funny thing is that MMA was originally envisioned as providing tanking services to the air wing. Instead of deploying independently, each P-8A squadron would be tied to a particular air wing. The P-8A's would follow the carrier as it moved from its homeport to an operating area, hopping from air base to air base. When a carrier would go into flight ops, the P-8A would launch, tank aircraft using drogue and hose buddy stores, conduct a surveillance flight around the carrier, tank during recovery, and then return to base. This was a great idea but got killed by inter-service politics.
When the Air Force heard that the navy was soliciting proposals with the tanking mission included, they cried foul, saying the fleet of KC-135's and KC-10's were the sole source of strategic tanking as mandated by Congress. The Navy replied "well, it's not strategic tanking, it's tactical tanking," but that battle had already been lost. A great idea withered on the vine because of shortsighted petty inter-service politics. Naval Aviation has always been shorted by USAF tanker assets. Why else would an organization like Omega Tanker exist? They provide on-demand tanking for the air wing because the USAF makes it too cumbersome. Oh, and because the Navy decided to retire the S-3 with no long-range tanker replacement. That decision didn't help the air wing but it sure helped Omega's shareholders.
It truly is a shame that the P-8A wasn't tied to the air wing as it was envisioned at one time. Both organizations would become more effective and deadly with the synergy of a powerful and persistent land-based sensor platform with tons of gas to play with and the all the unique strike, air-to-air and search and rescue capabilities of the air wing. Maritime patrol crews get a hard time for not being familiar with operating with the carrier and her aircraft but that's understandable if you consider the context. P-3C and P-8A crews usually only train with a carrier once or twice a year during a carrier group's pre-deployment certification exercises. Would anyone expect a football team to practice twice and then be ready for the big game on Friday night? No way! Why would anyone expect that something like aerial warfare would be simpler than a football game? The more the P-8A and the carrier air wing fly together, the more effective both will be.
For more on the potential future uses of the retired S-3 Viking click on this Foxtrot Alpha special feature.
The line that separates tracking a sub and killing a sub is literally opening the weapons bay and throwing a switch...
P-3C is a demanding aircraft to fly, and because high fidelity simulators weren't available for most of its lifetime, training had to be done in the aircraft. Simulating systems failures, landing with flaps up, executing high speed aborts, and simulating multiple engines out were routine maneuvers in the P-3C. As a result, the pinnacle of a well trained pilot was a be a Fleet Replacement Squadron instructor and in charge of Standardization. A demanding aircraft required very well trained Instructor Pilots to safely train the next generation of new pilots.
As I mentioned earlier, the P-8A is generations ahead of the P-3 in terms of safety and reliability, and this allows crews to really focus on their mission. Poseidon is a force multiplier when you consider the sensors, weapons, and connectivity it brings to the fight. Acting as an armed C5I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Collaboration, and Intelligence) node, the P-8A is becoming more useful to a combatant commander. That mission focus has put new emphasis on the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Weapons School. The 'Weapons School' is where the top Weapons and Tactics Instructors from the Fleet serve a shore tour. They conduct graduate level training for fleet squadrons and act as an incubator for tactics development and defining requirements for new weapons and sensors.
Probably the best part of being in the maritime patrol community is the chance to practice our mission all the time and interact with other nations. A fighter pilot may go his entire career without flying an actual wartime combat air patrol (CAP) or even seeing a real enemy jet. On the other hand, the line that separates tracking a sub and killing a sub is literally opening the weapons bay and throwing a switch!
In the last several years I've flown against many foreign submarines, operated near contested areas in the Pacific, and seen pirates attempt to hijack ships. The chance to be America's ambassador in the grey areas around the world is also humbling. When commanders talk about projecting power, that's what they mean. And the chance to do that as a twenty-something year old with a crew of 10 well-trained, motivated men and women is very special. To fly and lead is an honor. All of us pilots and Naval Flight Officers are very proud of that.
Foxtrot Alpha would like to express its gratitude toward our Maritime Patrol Pilot for sharing his detailed thoughts and stories with our readers, and to all who perform in this essential mission in defense of our country and its allies.
Pictures via Tyler Rogoway/Foxtrot Alpha where branded, USN, Boeing, Lockheed where not.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com