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]
“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.