At the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review it was announced that the RAF would be purchasing a replacement for the Nimrod MRA.4 which had been scrapped at the 2010 SDSR before even entering service. It was also announced that this would be the Boeing P-8 Poseidon which is a highly modified version of the Boeing 737-800 Airliner designed to be used for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Maritime Patrol (MP) and Long Range Search and Rescue (SAR). The reason given for the purchase is that they are needed to protect the Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers, the Nuclear Deterrent and SAR. It has also been announced that these aircraft will like the Nimrod before them be used in the overland surveillance role to supplement the existing RAF assets used in the role. Although it is unclear whether the UK will get access to the future overland capabilities of the P-8 I feel that it is a reasonable assumption to make due to the fact that the existing overland radar systems used by the UK and US have shown us that the British system is superior and that the UK’s desire to keep this capability alongside the continuing relationship with the US means that as long as funding is available from the MOD the system will be purchased. In the rest of this piece I am going to be examining the current and future capabilities of the Boeing P-8 and what impact these capabilities will have on operations that the UK’s armed forces will have to conduct in the future.
One of the main features of the P-8 is its Raytheon Advanced Airborne Sensor which began its introduction into service last year. A double sided Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) it gives almost 360° coverage around the aircraft and can almost simultaneously scan, map, track and classify targets. Such a radar on a platform could be a game changer in the maritime surveillance role of the UK due to the fact that with recent scares about swarms of fast moving small vessels we will be capable of tracking lots of targets and passing on information about these threats to the vessels which the aircraft is assisting in the defence of. The radar’s moving target indicator means that the radar can be used simultaneously over land and water with both synthetic aperture and inverted synthetic aperture radars for very high resolution images of both land and sea. This high quality targeting data can then be passed onto friendly platforms trough a data link and through the same links it can also be used to guide network enabled weapons. It is also believed that the radar can also be used to detect low flying and stealthy cruise missiles which with some of the developments that have been coming out of both China and Russia could have long term impact on the safety of friendly forces and civilians.
With regards to other sensors the P-8 does not have the synonymous Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) boom and this has been done to increase range and endurance. Although this can be seen as a major down fall of the platform it must be noted that Boeing claims that the ability of the aircrafts acoustic detection system renders the MAD system redundant and therefore deleting it doesn’t impact upon the ability of the aircraft to conduct the anti-submarine operations it is designed for. Another modern sensor system that the aircraft carries is a hydrocarbon sensor which can be used to detect conventionally powered surface vessels and submarines. This will allow for the aircraft to detect these vessels whilst being electronically silent meaning that the aircraft will only be able to be picked up on active sensors. Such a capability can theoretically be considered a stealth feature due to the fact that if the aircraft can only be detected via active systems the enemy forces would have to reveal their exact locations to the friendly forces and could then be targeted easily. The ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measures suite will allow for the aircraft to detect and in some cases directly deal with electronic threats to both the aircraft and friendly forces. Very little is publically available regarding this system and if I am able to find out more in the future this article will be updated with more detailed information. The P-8 carries 96 sonobouys and this number will allow for the aircraft to setup detailed sonar searches within several areas on a single mission and also allow for the aircraft to be able to follow a potential threat for a long time. This coupled with the aircrafts very high level of processing power and sensor fusion software will allow for the platform to draw up a very detailed tactical picture and then relay it to friendly forces via its high bandwidth datalinks.
- With regards to weaponry has been decided that the P-8 will enter RAF service using US weaponry in order to save integration costs. This will mean that the RAF will be able to take advantage of the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability add on kit for the Mark 54 torpedo which will allow for it to be launched from a height of 30,000 feet and therefore saving fuel and airframe fatigue life. The aircraft has 5 internal and 6 external hardpoints which are capable of carrying a selection of US weaponry such as the AGM-84 Harpoon anti ship missile, the related SLAM-ER cruise missile, the above mentioned Mark 54, mines and bombs. These capabilities mean that alongside the usual Maritime Patrol weapons the aircraft will be highly capable at engaging overland targets and this could come in useful in a COIN scenario where the aircrafts sensors and high loiter time will be extremely useful in supporting friendly troops.
Overall I feel that the P-8 is well placed to replace the retired Nimrod fleet although I feel that due to it not being in UK service for the next few years and the small fleet it would have been more financially and operationally prudent to have gone ahead with the Nimrod MRA.4 program. Whether or not just 9 aircraft will be capable of delivering the capability need is yet to be seen. The platform is incredibly mature for its age and if this current rate of progression stays we will see many more improvements over its service life.