Analysis: The P-8 Poseidon MPA

MSR looks at the changing role of maritime patrol aircraft.

The United States and its revolution of Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Guest Author: Peter Anson

Since the end of the Cold War, Western air forces have sought to maximise the capabilities of their aircraft as physical numbers of aircraft dwindle to a fraction of what it was before. To counter reducing numbers of physical military assets, militaries have sought to exploit greater situational awareness and communication between one another while being capable of a host of roles instead of specific missions.

From the 1960s the United States Navy relied on the P-3 Orion, of which over 700 were produced not only for the United States but other states such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Norway. Today, its replacement is the P-8 Poseidon, an aircraft based on the Boeing 737-800 but heavily modified with military equipment. Compared to the 700 P-3s produced, the United States Navy intends to obtain anywhere between 109-117 P-8s, each aircraft approximately costing $125 million USD compared to the P-3’s $77 million (adjusted for inflation from 1987). One is compelled to pose the question, what does the P-8 offer for, given it’s significantly more expensive?

The envisioned capability revolves around two key aspects – data fusion, and its potential data collecting capabilities.

To imagine data fusion and what it offers, it is much like a shared computer system on steroids. One may remember as computers became the dominant form of communication and sharing files, an organisation would create a large database that collected all of this intelligence into one place for all to see, provided that you had special access to it. The P-8 builds on this philosophy, fusing all of the data collected by its own sensors or other assets into one large battlespace. In the past, a P-3 Orion operator may detect information of interest, but would be severely limited in their capability to share this information, let alone in real time. The P-8 conversely can distribute its data collected in real time as accurately as its sensors allow, while receiving data from other assets, be they land based, maritime or other air assets. A P-8 operator may look at the battle space and only a fraction of what is seen on the display is information collected from itself. Due to this capability of handling enormous amounts of shared data, the P-8 is planned to be a multi role command and control centre offering greater adaptability to meet rapidly changing demands the military faces today around the globe.

While the data fusion the P-8 offers is representative of the direction of military hardware today, the organic capabilities demonstrate how the P-8 will exceed the P-3 not only in similar hardware but the variety of hardware it will use to investigate areas of interest. In line with the symbolism of a command and control centre, the plan for the P-8 is to cruise at high altitude unlike the P-3 that flew at low level. In this regard, the P-8 has disposed of the Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), which attempts to find submarines by detecting disturbances in magnetic waves and instead uses an acoustic system which has been trialled on the P-3, and if necessary will use drones fitted with MAD, either the MQ-4C Triton or a portable drone carried in the P-8 to detect magnetic anomalies.

The P-8 has been designed from the outset to carry two radars, the Raytheon AN/APY-10 and Advanced Airborne Sensor(AAS). The AN/APY-10 carried in the nose is claimed to be able to detect surface vessels from at least 370km, capable of mapping the ground, reconnaissance and target identification. The AAS is more specific than the AN/APY-10 and for the last few months has started to be integrated onto the P-8s. The AAS can detect, classify and track targets on land and at sea at the same time, able to create images from the radar which does not rely on limitations of optical sensors. Due to the precision, it can use the information to guide a weapon towards the necessary target. Further to this, it has potential of radar jamming, damaging electronic components and even potentially cyber warfare. The P-8 is also capable of carrying sonobuoys like the P-3, though these will be planned to be dropped from high altitude. Sonobuoys produce frequency and via sonar can find the direction of a target. With multiple sonobuoys, the target can be triangulated for a weapons quality solution.

There are rumours of what the P-8 will be fitted with, and images have appeared of mysterious pods hung under the aircraft or other parts of equipment to be integrated, leading to articles that theorise the P-8 will do more than just anti-submarine warfare and anti-shipping. It is thought the P-8 may also become a signals intelligence aircraft that can intercept phone calls and messages; perhaps a tool to be used when attempting to counter piracy.

The foreseen capabilities of the P-8 are eye watering and demonstrate a great flexibility in the new world of military technology, breaking into a mentality of sensors, detection and seamless communication unlike before, and though the P-8 will be few in numbers, the bolstering of numbers through autonomous drones can compensate. It is likely the aircraft will be well sought after in years to come with India, Australia, the United Kingdom and Norway all ordering examples of the P-8 from Boeing.

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