Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Exceeding expectations: The U.S. Navy's P-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft
Richard R. Burgess, Seapower Magazine
The Navy’s P-8 maritime patrol aircraft impresses operators in the Western Pacific
With three deployments completed since the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft became operational, Navy operators and acquisition officials are pleased with the performance, readiness and availability of the aircraft and are proceeding with more orders and upgrades.
The P-8A achieved initial operational capability in December 2013 with a deployment to the Western Pacific by Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16), followed in sequence by VP-5 and VP-45. Two more squadrons, VP-8 and VP-10, have traded their P-3C Orions for P-8As and a sixth, VP-26, returned from its final P-3C deployment on Sept. 4 to begin the transition. The six West Coast P-3C VP squadrons will begin the transition in 2016. Soon, the P-8A will be deployed to the Persian Gulf.
“The P-8A Poseidon represents the most advanced maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft flying today,” said RDML Kyle Cozad, commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, and Patrol and Reconnaissance Group Pacific, a P-3 pilot and veteran of seven P-3 deployments. “It will serve as the future of airborne maritime patrol and reconnaissance for decades to come. When fully fielded, the P-8A will successfully recapitalize and exceed the broad area anti-submarine warfare [ASW], anti-surface warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability resident in the legacy P-3C Orion.
“While the aging P-3C AIP [Anti-surface Improvement Program version] remains a capable aircraft, the P-8A’s superior reliability, high speed and technological advances are game changers in the maritime patrol and reconnaissance arena,” Cozad said. “During the P-8’s initial fleet introduction and operational deployments, it has demonstrated a nearly 100 percent mission completion rate.”
That mission completion rate is largely because of the reliability of the Poseidon.
“The reliability of the engines and airframe ensures that we have a very high ‘ready for tasking’ rate,” said CDR John Weidner, commanding officer of VP-45 since May, who made a deployment to the Western Pacific in the P-8 and previously made four deployments in the P-3. “This allows the Navy to accomplish missions from multiple sites simultaneously and with a very high mission completion rate. All systems performed at or above what was expected of a P-8. In particular, the communications systems performed extremely well.
“The P-3 has been in the service for decades and requires a significant level of maintenance on the engines, especially as the aircraft becomes older,” he said. “This is not the case for the P-8. The engines are very reliable and require very little unscheduled maintenance. The fact that the P-8 has numerous mission systems does correlate to the requirement for more man-hours to support avionics systems. We are properly manned to support the shift from the engine and airframe focus of a P-3 to an avionics focus on the P-8.”
Weidner said the engine and airframe reliability also made the P-8A “very well-suited” for detachment operations away from the main deployment site.
“Support equipment for the P-8 is readily available worldwide because it is a Boeing 737 and is supported at most airfields.” he said. “The communications suite also allows the aircraft to receive tasking while detached to remote sites and has the ability to operate with minimal support.”
Cozad said the enhanced sensor and communications suites “have proven to significantly improve Combatant Commanders’ maritime domain awareness” and that the reliability of the P-8A “allows us to meet forward-deployed tasking with fewer aircraft.”
The P-8A squadrons have been deploying with six aircraft, compared with eight or nine for a P-3C squadron. “The ability to get information and data off the aircraft quickly is the new norm,” Weidner said. “The information sent off the aircraft is quickly passed to follow-on aircrews so that they can have a clear understanding of the tactical situation and deployed commanders can update tasking as a result of the faster input to their decision-making cycle.”
“In comparison to P-3C, the P-8A is quite a bit more capable, particularly with regard to range, endurance and reliability,” said the Navy’s P-8 program manager, CAPT Scott Dillon. “The acoustic system has a greater total search area and probability of detection while the sensor and communications systems are seamlessly integrated with one another, greatly increasing the mission effectiveness of the aircrew.
“The Electronic Support Measure system is a derivative of the system used on the EA-18G Growler and another example of the manner in which the P-8A acquisition strategy leveraged existing technology to reduce development risk and improve maritime patrol capability,” he said. “The fleet operators have used it to great effect in determining the location of contacts of interest at extended ranges.”
Weidner also praised the crew comfort factor of the P-8.
“One item that gets overlooked, because of all the focus on engine, airframe and mission systems, is aircrew fatigue,” he said. “The P-8 has an excellent pressurization system, very good temperature control and the cabin of the aircraft is much quieter than a P-3. This all adds up to reduced aircrew fatigue on-station. The result is excellent situational awareness and improved post-mission products that our commanders require. It is easy to tell the difference between P-3 and P-8 crews after a long mission.” Weidner said his crews adjusted well to the transition from the P-3 to the P-8.
“The transition was easier for the naval flight officers and naval aircrewman operators because the systems in the aircraft performed many of the same functions that were performed in the P-3,” he said. “The pilots transitioned smoothly as well. However, the pilots had to learn to fly by utilizing the automated Flight Management Computer ... a significant change from the P-3.”
“The P-8 has met or exceeded the fleet’s expectations in nearly every area,” Dillon said. “The aircraft’s speed, time-on-station and dependability, combined with its highly integrated, modern sensor suite, have proven to be optimally suited to Seventh Fleet operational tasking.” Dillon attributes much of the success of the program to the Navy’s acquisition strategy.
“The P-8A evolutionary acquisition strategy has been a very successful, cost-effective approach to fielding significant new capabilities quickly,” he said. “The aircraft’s performance on deployment has validated the commercial-derivative airframe. The active [Boeing] 737 production line has saved cost and schedule, allowing us to field a mature capability from the start. Our acquisition strategy allows us to consistently field mature capabilities while continuing to simultaneously develop the next generation of upgrades.
“Boeing’s in-line production process has effectively leveraged the commercial 737 production line to affordably deliver an exceptionally capable military aircraft,” he said.” They have regularly been ahead of schedule on deliveries and have successfully delivered 28 high-quality aircraft to the fleet in support of five P-3C to P-8A squadron transitions to date.
“The P-8A program has encountered no particularly challenging technical problems,” Dillon said. “As would be expected for a complex system, we occasionally encounter software deficiencies that affect individual mission system functions. However, they have not reduced the overall mission effectiveness of the aircraft and are, as a matter of standard practice, corrected in subsequent software releases.”
On Aug. 28, with a $1.49 billion contract, the Navy ordered a second full-rate production batch of 13 P-8As, nine for the Navy, which will bring total orders to 62 aircraft. The other four are for the Royal Australian Air Force, which has been a program partner since 2009.
The Navy is implementing two planned upgrade phases for the P-8A. Increment 2 upgrades already have begun with the February introduction of the initial Multi-static Active Coherent acoustics signal processing capability. The second Increment 2 upgrade will deliver High Altitude ASW capabilities in 2016, to be followed by a High Altitude ASW Weapon Capability (HAAWC), a torpedo with a wing kit and a guidance kit to allow for high-altitude attack on submarines.
On Sept. 2, Naval Air Systems Command awarded a $23.2 million contract modification to Boeing for the testing of the HAAWC on the P-8. Increment 3 will be a series of 13 capability upgrades that will be implemented between 2018 and 2023.
“The P-8A Poseidon represents an evolutionary acquisition program that applies best practices to leverage new technology through incremental aircraft upgrades,” Cozad said. “In the future, we will employ a Family of Systems comprising the P-8A and MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft systems supported on the ground by Mobile Tactical Operations Centers. More than a transition to a single new weapons platform, the Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance force is undergoing a transformation in the way those capabilities will be used to multiply our effects for supported commanders.
“The many contributions of P-8A to the fleet continue to be assessed,” he said. “However, with three successful operational deployments under its belt, the Poseidon has proven itself equal to the task and has in fact exceeded expectations. Whether providing increased maritime domain awareness or delivering kinetic effects to undersea or surface adversaries, the P-8A is a welcome and valuable asset to the warfighter.”