The P-8A Poseidon has been routinely held up as an example of a well run and technically successful program. Let’s take a closer look at the technical aspects of the program. To an extent, this is a familiarization article intended to assist in future ASW and surveillance discussions. A better understanding of the P-8’s role and effectiveness will enhance the quality of our discussions.
The P-8 is the replacement for the venerable P-3C Orion. It is tasked with ASW, surveillance, and surface warfare mainly from a support perspective.
One of the major technical tools that will be employed is the Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC) sonobuoy system. Very briefly and simply, the MAC is an acoustic search system, like the traditional sonobuoys, that uses a single noise source buoy and multiple receiver buoys. In contrast, the traditional active sonobuoys use a single buoy that is both the noise source and the receiver. By using multiple receivers, the MAC system can, theoretically cover more volume and provide greater sensitivity since the sound echoes can be correlated over multiple receivers. Of course, this requires a great deal of sophisticated analysis software and a high degree of operator skill to interpret the results. If successful, the MAC will confer the ability for the P-3/8 to conduct wide area ASW searches.
So, how are the MAC system and P-8 doing? Here’s what the 2013 DOT&E annual report has to say. Regarding the MAC system, itself,
“Preliminary operational test results indicate that the MAC system provides P-3C aircraft with some limited wide-area ASW search capability in select scenarios but it falls short of what the fleet identified as the capability they need to protect high value units. Initial testing revealed unexpected performance shortfalls that are still being investigated.”
“The data also suggest operators are only able to recognize a small
fraction of the valid system detections as targets.”
For the P-8,
“Based on IOT&E results, the P-8A Increment 1 system provides maritime patrol mission capabilities similar to the legacy P-3C system in selected mission areas, but it is not effective for executing the full range of mission tasks required by the P-8A Increment 1 concept of operations.”
“The P-8A Increment 1 system provides effective small- area, cued Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) search, localization, and attack mission capabilities similar to the legacy P-3C system. Fundamental limitations in current sensor technology restrict search capabilities against more stressing adversary targets, making the P-8A not effective in some mission scenarios. The P-8A does not have an equivalent broad-area ASW acoustic search capability similar to that provided by the P-3C Improved Extended Echo Ranging system.” Ed. Note: Improved Extended Echo Ranging is the previous version of MAC
“In fact, current P-8A ASW search capabilities provide only a small fraction of what is needed for most Navy operational plans.”
“P-8A non-acoustic search capabilities are also very limited for evasive targets attempting to limit exposure to detection by radar and other sensors.”
“The P-8A is effective in conducting unarmed Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) missions against maritime surface targets. The radar and supporting sensor systems provide an effective, all-weather surface target search, detection, and classification capability at short to medium ranges for all maritime surface targets and at longer ranges for larger target vessels.”
“The P-8A is not effective for the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission. Radar performance deficiencies, sensor integration problems, and data transfer system interoperability shortfalls degrade imagery intelligence collection and dissemination capabilities.”
“P-8A aircraft flight performance meets or exceeds operational requirements and fully supports execution of the ASW, ASuW, and ISR concept of operations. The system provides increased range, payload, and speed compared to the legacy P-3C aircraft.”
A mixed bag. What is the takeaway from this?
On a general note, this yet again demonstrates that the claimed capabilities of new platforms are never fully met. This should inform F-35 discussions, among other programs, where supporters jump totally on board with every claimed capability.
The P-8 is, currently, capable of short range ASW searches but lacks a broad area search capability. The MAC system may, eventually, provide a broad area search capability but not for the near to moderate future. Its general intelligence and surveillance capabilities are limited. Software is often the limiting factor and is often the critical failure point in modern systems. Again, this is seen in the F-35 program and needs to be kept firmly in mind when discussing any system.
The general conclusion is that the P-8 will offer a degree of ASW support but will not have a decisive impact on operations for the near to moderate future. Of course, the incorporation of future improvements, including, hopefully, the MAC system, may well increase the usefulness of the P-8 over its lifetime.
Not surprisingly, the preceding suggests that ASW will continue to be a collaborative effort among multiple platforms. Given the area and volume of the ocean(s), and the limited search effectiveness of any single platform, the most glaring ASW need is for greater numbers of platforms of all types. In turn, this suggests that the demise of the LCS in its current form (one of which supposedly being an ASW version) leaves a gap in the Navy’s surface force ASW capability. Some will answer that the Burkes will fill the ASW role but no sane person is going to risk a multi-billion dollar, undertrained Burke playing tag with a submarine. The Navy needs a cheap, low end, dedicated ASW vessel as well as an S-3 Viking replacement to complement the P-8 and SSN force. Let that be the takeaway for future discussions!