ComNavOps has long had doubts about the wartime role of the P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft. The doubts arise from the combination of the aircraft’s slow and defenseless nature plus the necessity that it broadcast its presence (operating its radar) when performing the maritime patrol function (MPA). Thus, the enemy is given a free location fix against a high value, slow, defenseless asset. In other words, the P-8 is a sitting duck in combat if used as envisioned.
“Used as envisioned”, of course, brings up the subject of the concept of operations (CONOPS). How will the P-8 be used? What will its main function be – ASW, MPA, both? Will it perform its searches actively or passively? Will it be defended by fighter aircraft or used independently?
Most importantly, how close to the contested air/water space will it be used? Certainly, the further back from the front line, the safer. Of course, the flip side of that is that the further back from the front line, the less useful and effective it is.
The next question is where is the front line? Well, that’s a nebulous concept that depends on the weapons being considered. Considering an enemy rifleman, the front line is a hundred yards or so. Considering enemy surface to air missiles which would be targeted at a P-8 aircraft, the front line is the range of the SAM systems which is 250 -300+ miles. Here’s some range data on Russian SAM systems for consideration.
S-200 (SA-5) 190 miles
S-300 (SA-10) 121 miles
S-400 (SA-21) 250 miles
S-500 (?) 250 – 300+ miles
Of course, the reported Russian SAM ranges are, undoubtedly, maximum theoretical ranges. Effective ranges are probably half that.
Now, compare the SAM engagement ranges to the P-8’s detection range which is reportedly up to 200 miles for large targets with low resolution. An effective range is probably more on the order of 100 miles.
Comparing the SAM ranges and the P-8 detection range, it’s clear that the P-8 will have to enter the SAM’s engagement range to see anything assuming the SAM systems are on the front line. The point is that unless we’re willing to consider P-8s as expendable, they’ll have to be held well back from the front line. With that in mind, what will the P-8s be looking for?
So far, this is considering only SAM ranges. If thousand mile fighters and UAVs are considered, the P-8’s will be pushed even further back from the front line.
Knowledge of the location and movement of enemy units behind the front lines is immensely useful. Knowledge of the location and movement of enemy units many hundreds of miles on our side of the front line is useful (certainly!!!) but highly unlikely other than the odd submarine. In simple terms, the P-8 will offer us no intelligence about what’s happening inside the Chinese first island chain which is exactly the kind of intel we’d like to have.
|P-8 Poseidon - Useful in War?|
Let’s switch gears, momentarily. ComNavOps is ever one to study and learn from history and it occurs that the WWII PBY Catalina is a relevant comparison to the P-8. The PBY was designed as the MPA aircraft of its time and, indeed, functioned in that role for the first couple of years of the war before being superseded by long ranged, land based aircraft. Like the P-8, the PBY was large, slow, and defenseless. Data is difficult to come by but here’s the best summary of the early PBY loss rates that I could assemble, divided into the two main operational areas. The operating area is followed by the number of PBY’s deployed and then the number of PBY’s lost.
Location Deployed Lost
The loss rates are staggering. Admittedly, many of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground but the loss rates in the air were also appalling. On the other hand, the aircraft performed its function. For example, the 30 PBY’s based on Midway found the Japanese fleet and set the stage for the battle that followed. Thus, as a cheap, plentiful, expendable detection system the PBY was effective. We had lots of PBYs and could afford to send them deep into potential enemy waters as expendable detection devices. Locating an enemy fleet was deemed worth the loss of the aircraft. Does this hold true today? Are we willing to send $200M P-8’s on one-way missions? Even if we are, we’ll likely only have around 80 P-8’s after the production run is done. Note that we lost 82 PBY’s in the first couple years of WWII in just two relatively localized theaters.
|PBY Catalina - WWII's P-8 Poseidon|
Also note that the preceding discussion is focused on the MPA role, using radar for long distance surveillance. The situation becomes far worse for the ASW role. ASW detection does not occur at 100-200 mile radar ranges – it occurs at sonobuoy range. How will P-8’s possibly penetrate far enough into the battlespace to perform useful ASW without being shot down? I have no answer for that and, indeed, the answer would seem to be that it can’t.
This suggests a disturbing scenario – that we have spent the last few decades building a military force optimized for uncontested operations and one ill-suited for contested operations. How will we perform ASW inside the first island chain? Our own submarines can perform ASW and that is, of course, one of their main functions but that then brings the looming submarine shortfall into much sharper focus. If submarines are to be our main ASW platform why are we allowing such a shortfall in numbers?. Far from a shortfall, perhaps we should be increasing our submarine numbers?
All of the preceding also leads to the inevitable question, why do we even have P-8’s if they won’t be effective in war? Why did we ever begin building P-3/8’s? That answer lies with the nature of the enemy when long range patrol aircraft were developed. During WWII, with only very short range surveillance systems available, enemy fleets could be anywhere in the Pacific. Thus, PBY’s were needed to cover the entire ocean (or, at least, the areas of more immediate concern). In more modern times, the
Soviet Union was also a world-ranging naval force (submarines, in
particular). Thus, again, a patrol aircraft
was needed to cover the entire world.
The plus side of this was that while the Soviet Union had far ranging submarines that needed to be
detected their SAM systems and fighter aircraft were not present world wide. Thus, the P-3’s were free to roam the world, hunting
for submarines and conducting area surveillance, secure in the knowledge that
they were relatively safe.
Today, however, our enemy of interest,
, is not a world ranging naval force (though they are
moving in that direction) and is, for the foreseeable future, content to
operate largely behind the first island chain.
Thus, we need to go into the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone thus
created if we hope to generate useful intel.
This means that our primary ocean surveillance platforms, the P-8 and
BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) UAVs are particularly ill-suited for
the mission. China
We essentially replaced the P-3 with a duplicate, the P-8 – upgraded a bit, to be sure, but for all practical operational and tactical purposes, the same aircraft. Over the life of the P-3, the operational and tactical landscape changed immensely from world wide surveillance to relatively small, focused surveillance on A2/AD zones and the threat to the aircraft changed from almost non-existent to very long ranged and lethal. Despite those immense changes, we simply replaced the P-3 with its duplicate. Perhaps we should have examined the CONOPS a bit closer and come up with a better means to accomplish the mission – a means that might have been something other than the P-8 or other than an aircraft, at all.
Some will say that the F-35 is how we will obtain our deep penetration intel. This ignores the reality that the F-35 has neither the flight range nor the radar/sensor range to cover the entire East/South China Seas. The F-35 might be useful for looking at a specific, tiny spot but it is not a maritime patrol aircraft. Add to that the likelihood that every available F-35 will be fully occupied trying to establish air superiority and none will be available for generic surveillance work.
Thus, we are left with the conclusion that the P-8 and BAMS will not be particularly useful in high end combat and the question, how will we gather useful A2/AD zone surveillance information?