Monday, May 2, 2016

MAC Update

Here’s an update on the P-8 Poseidon’s Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC) sonobuoy system from the Director, Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) 2015 Annual Report.

MAC, you’ll recall, is a sonobuoy system that uses active acoustic transmitter buoys combined with passive receiver buoys to enhance detection capabilities.  In other words, one buoy transmits and the others listen.  MAC was the key ASW enhancement provided by the P-8.

Here’s what DOT&E had to say.

“DOT&E assessed that the MAC system provides the P-8A and the P-3C aircraft with a wide-area ASW search capability in some environments and for select target scenarios, but that MAC falls short of what the fleet identified as the capability needed to protect high-value units.   … DOT&E assessed MAC detection performance was similar to the P-3C’s performance and independent of the aircraft platform.” [emphasis added]


Further,

“The data also show operators are only able to recognize a small fraction of valid system submarine detections as a possible target and spent time assessing and prosecuting false targets.”


This is hardly surprising.  ASW has always been conducted against a backdrop of a high rate of false contacts and their corollary, missed contacts.  The reality is that finding very quiet targets in a very large and noisy ocean is an exceedingly difficult task.  That we would believe this new system somehow changes that basic reality simply demonstrates the arrogance of our belief that technology can magically set aside reality. 

We see, then, that MAC offers no demonstrable improvement over the traditional sonobuoy approach.  Theory suggests that there ought to be some improvement and perhaps there will be, eventually, as the system is exercised and developed but the reality is that there is no improvement as yet and no hard reason to expect that there will be.

This again illustrates the folly of developing an entire product, the P-8 in this case, based on a non-existent technology.  The P-8 was supposed to offer a vastly improved wide area ASW capability due to the MAC system.  Instead, we have a P-8 that offers no improvement and may be slightly inferior to the P-3 because the MAD sensor was deleted!

We previously talked about the wisdom of building new P-8s versus upgrading exiting P-3s and this finding suggests that there was even less reason for new builds.  Of course, new airframes are always nice even if the capabilities remain unchanged but the cost is significant for no gain in capabilities.

The point of this post is not to re-examine the P-8/P-3 new or upgrade debate.  The point is that this is another example of a non-existent technology that was pushed into production before it was ready.  MAC should have been developed as an R&D product and if it ever panned out then it could have been integrated into whatever ASW aircraft we would have at the time.  Instead, we have a hugely expensive new aircraft whose core ASW capability appears no better than the aircraft it replaced.


We need to leave developmental products in R&D until they’re ready.

9 comments:

  1. The weapons platform isn't all it should be. Sure.
    The aircraft are cheaper to operate and will also longer.
    If history teaches us anything, its that new weapons system come up all the time. Who knows what will be shoe horned into them in a quarter of a century. Im sure the detection/attack systems on the P3 aren't what it was originally designed it.
    Regardless. Refining the system, adding different technology to it down the track, may improve its sensor system.

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    1. Nate, you're missing most of my main points over the course of this blog.

      1. Non-existent technology should NEVER be put into a production platform. In this case, when the MAC system is completely proven in an R&D setting, THEN program it into whatever platform can use it.

      2. Hope that some improved sensor/weapon will appear down the road to make a platform useful is NOT an acquisition strategy.

      3. Instead of riding a platform into the dirt by overusing it and failing to maintain it, let's greatly extend the life of our platforms by using them wisely (don't use F-18's to plink pickup trucks, for example) and maintaining them well.

      4. Not every platform needs to be a Star Wars Deathstar. We need to build low end, cheap, functional, basic platforms for the 99% of tasks that a military performs.

      Consider those points and re-evaluate your statement.

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    2. "The aircraft are cheaper to operate and will also [last?] longer."

      This is probably a woefully incorrect statement. There is no evidence that newer platforms are cheaper to operate in the long run. While their maintenance may (or may not) be simpler, their overall operating costs seem to continually go up. I'm hard pressed to come up with an example of a new platform that has proven cheaper to operate than its predecessor. There probably is one but I can't think of any off hand.

      The new platforms will NOT last longer because we won't maintain them like we should. Instead, in a relatively short while, we'll start complaining to Congress that we need a new XXXXX because the old ones are worn out - long before their supposed service lives are up but we don't mention that to Congress. Look at the Los Angeles class subs that we're retiring well before their service lives are up despite a submarine shortfall. Look at the Aegis cruisers that the Navy is trying to retire well before their service lives. And the list goes on.

      Your statement is oft repeated but rarely or never true.

      When making these kinds of statements we need to look at what history tells us IS, not what we think ought to be.

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    3. ""The aircraft are cheaper to operate and will also [last?] longer."

      This is probably a woefully incorrect statement. There is no evidence that newer platforms are cheaper to operate in the long run. While their maintenance may (or may not) be simpler, their overall operating costs seem to continually go up. I'm hard pressed to come up with an example of a new platform that has proven cheaper to operate than its predecessor. There probably is one but I can't think of any off hand."

      Sort of
      We are on version 8 of the 747 so far.
      With numerous revisions between versions.

      The newest 747 carries more passengers, faster, for less fuel and with less on the ground maintenance.

      The problem is, if a part that used to be replaced every 500hrs, is replaced with a slightly more expensive part, that has to be replaced every 1000hrs, it only generates a saving if you replace the part every 1000hrs.
      If you continue to replace every 500hrs, because someone doesnt update the service manual, its a step back not forwards.

      Believe me, the above happens.

      Secondly, people rarely take efficiency gains as efficiency gains.
      My first mobile phone needed charging once a week if that, my current phone rarely makes it to bed time without a charge during the day, despite having 5x the battery capacity, because more stuff is quickly added on.
      More efficient engines are rapidly face with heavier platforms to carry.

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  2. I used to work with an old P3 guy. The gist I got from him (completely unscientific) was that while the technology was important, ASW was all about constant practice and coordination.

    I only bring that up because with the emphasis on reducing manning I'm wondering if the Navy is trying to use technology to cut that short.

    That isn't bad, per se, but you have to have the constant practice to see if it will work. I'm almost positive we aren't getting that like we used to in the cold war.

    And while we aren't facing the hordes of soviet SSN's, quiet AIP subs will be part of any nations A2/AD setup I'd think. So while the job may have gotten more localized its harder.

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    1. An excellent comment. ASW is an art and requires constant practice. I laugh at the Navy calling Burkes ASW platforms. One scripted exercise once a year does not make an ASW platform.

      You are spot on about the Navy trying to substitute technology for manning. Technology can NOT replicate human interpretation, skill, and experience. Outstanding observation.

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    2. If you think about it, most things in the military are about constant training and coordination.

      There seems to be this mentality that new technology and often unproven trumps all. It is likely the doing of the defense industry. This has led to the neglect of maintenance, training, and independent thinking.

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    3. I think the quote from the DOTE report shows that you are on the money about training and human factors in ASW effectiveness.

      The quote says that the operators could only recognize a fraction of the submarine detections as submarine targets. That sounds like the sensors are picking up signs of the submarines, but the people are unable to use their equipment to identify most sub contacts.

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  3. "If you think about it, most things in the military are about constant training and coordination."

    I wonder if we cleaned up contracting, kept 4th gen or 4th gen + equipment (just make more F-15C's. Make more SH's with conformal tanks, re-activate S-3's as we can, maybe make a Diesel Abrams if that can be done simply, but change nothing else), and just trained, trained, trained, trained we'd be better off.

    I have no solution for ASW ships if they can't make the LCS work at just a basic level.

    Before people jump in and point out the flaws of those platforms, I'm not saying they are perfect by a long chalk. Just that they have hot production lines, existing logistical tails, and people who know how to maintaint them, and that maybe those things would save enough money for the time being we could concentrate on numbers and warfighting training.

    Its just a thought.

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