US Navyís P-8, ASW Plans Missing the Mark

September, 2012

We recently attended a briefing on the Navyís new P-8 Poseidon aircraft, the replacement for the P-3C Orion. The short version is that it is not working out as hoped and that US Navy airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is in jeopardy.

The P-8 is based upon the Boeing 737-800 aircraft, an airplane in wide, successful use worldwide for decades. Like the P-3, the concept is to use a variant of a commercial airframe so as not to have to design a new military aircraft from scratch, such as the P-2 Neptune, developed during World War II and serving through the SP-2H model into the early 1970s in the Reserves.

Looked good on paper. The P-3 was rapidly deteriorating from over-use. Introduced to the fleet as the P-3A in 1962, and designed for a life-time of 10,000 hours, it continues to fly today as the P-3C and EP-2E, with some airframes now exceeding 30,000 hours. Time and over-use have devastated the P-3 fleet, down from 456 flying airframes in the US Navy in the 1970s to approximately 85 airworthy craft today. While some are being re-winged to again extend the life until the P-8 was to have come on line in numbers, the P-3C fleet is barely limping along at present. Just as bad, as the Soviet Navy disintegrated in the 1990s, the P-3ís ASW mission was abandoned in all but name in favor of over-land, Southwest Asian missions, where its long flight endurance of up to14 hours and large intelligence suite allows real-time surveillance of the battlefield for on-scene commanders. UAVs help fill the gaps, but cannot compare to the capabilities of a 12-20-man P-3 crew loitering at 20,000 feet above a battlefield.

After the Lockheed P-7 was put out of its misery in the 1980s, the Boeing P-8 was conceived as a 156-airframe replacement for the already dwindling number of P-3s, a number of P-8s then reduced to 108 aircraft, to be augmented by dedicated UAVs and UCAVs for persistent surveillance over-ocean missions. The P-3ís 330 knot enroute speed would be substantially increased to over 500 knots with the P-8, meaning a faster arrival on station. Since a jet burns far more fuel per mile than a turboprop, the P-3ís low-level endurance was to be sacrificed by a never before tried high-altitude precision ASW at or above 20,000 feet, meaning abandonment of what had been traditional low-level tracking of and attack upon a submarine. Torpedoes dropped from 200-500 feet will now become glide-bombs: torpedoes with wings dropped from 20,000 feet to somehow reach a fleeing submarine before it's long gone. The P-8s MAD boom was summarily dispatched. To those of us with real world ASW experience, the picture was questionable and depended upon no yet developed new ASW techniques and technology.

At the recent brief we were instructed about new, smaller, light-weight sonobouys equipped with GPS that will be launched from rotary launchers aboard the P-8. This is aimed at plot stabilization, or plotstab, a critical element in ASW. A submarine or surface contact is positioned with respect to the sono pattern dropped. Unless you know where your bouys are, you canít know where your target is. The GPS-broadcasting bouys are meant to align target location with the real world. This will be especially tough because the P-8 is meant to stay above 20,000 feet. This altitude restriction is imposed for several reasons, but we were informed it is primarily because the P-8s planned onsta performance is not even close to what the Boeing and Navy engineers estimated, and is, in fact perhaps four hours, or about half that of the P-3 or even the P-2. While this was not elaborated upon at the brief, those listening could only come up with two possibilities: most missions will be mid-ocean (unlikely) or, the aircraft performance is far below what Boeing promised. Another issue was crew manning. The P-8 is being equipped with an air-to-air refueling capability. This has not actually been tested, nor is there provision for the P-8 to carry a relief crew. Thirdly, the training pipeline was described as an astounding 15 months for new aircrew. Finally, the nominal 108 aircraft seems to have been an overstatement. According to the brief, there will be three P-8 bases in the U.S.: NAS Jacksonville, FL, with six squadrons; NAS Whidbey Island, WA, with three squadrons; and MCAS Kaneohe, HI, with three squadrons. With each squadron these days being comprised of six aircraft, thatís 72 P-8s under the current plan. While there is some work being done on the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV being done, there was no word of whether that will actually happen or in what numbers.

The Navy is still claiming the first P-8 squadron will stand up in 2013. But in January, 2013, the military will be hit with sequestration. The latest estimate is that the military will lose $585 billion in another four months, with another $110 billion being cut thereafter. The flawed P-8 cannot survive under this plan. In fact, the US Navy cannot meaningfully exist under this plan. But the next war wonít care. With anti-submarine warfare and anti-mine warfare basically gone, our ships are themselves in serious jeapordy. Most of our enemies with coast lines are busy buying AIP diesel subs, which the P-8 is supposed to be able to find and sink. The horrific TV pictures of our carriers burning will go from science fiction to fact.