Transitioning from the P3 to the P8


05/24/2011 Transitioning from the P3 to the P8: A Sea Change in Maritime Surveillance

During the visit in San Diego in late March 2011 to the Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Second Line of Defense sat down with Commander Jake Johansson to discuss the evolution of maritime surveillance.  Johansson discussed the transition from the P3 to the P8 and the evolution of the maritime surveillance mission area. As a lifelong maritime surveillance professional, Johansson provided a sweeping review of where the USN has come and where it is going in this vital mission area. Commander Johansson is CNAF Maritime Readiness/CNAP Deputy Operations.

Commander Johansson Druing the SLD Interview

Credit: SLD 2011

SLD: Can you provide us with an overview of the evolution of the mission area for maritime surveillance platforms?

Johansson: When I started on the P3s, there was definitely an ASW threat; 98-percent of the flights I flew where maritime missions.  We tracked other nation’s submarines just as often as we tracked our own when I first started out in the community in the early 80s.With the end of the Cold War, this changed and we re-focused our mission to remain relevant in the fight. We updated our aircraft with the AIP suite and began flying over land more than flying in the maritime eventually supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quite extensively.

As I said, during my first tour, 98-percent of my flights were over water, and about 50 to 60 to 70-percent of those we’re doing ASW, whether it was search, localize or tracking other world submarines. During my last deployment, with few exceptions our squadron never flew over water except for transits. Most of my tactical flights were over land supporting OIF.  This is not true of all deployed squadrons but it happened to be true for my squadron and was representative of the last 4 or so squadrons that preceded ours in Iraq.

Even though we had migrated over land somewhat, our primary mission area has always been and will always be focused in the maritime environment. We are always striving to get back to the basics of our primary mission area, which is ASW. Our community feels that if you can grasp the complexity of ASW as a whole, then you can use those tactical and crew resource management skills over in our other mission areas of anti-surface warfare as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

SLD: The P8 is not a simple replacement for the P3.  Could you talk to the replacement approach and process?

Johansson: What the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force is moving toward is a family of systems that include the P8, the systems that are in our other variants of aircraft and the broad air and maritime surveillance UAV, or BAMS. Those platforms, supported by the Tactical Operations Centers and Mobile Tactical Operations Centers can provide 24/7/365 Maritime Domain Awareness if required. We have two variants of the baseline P-3 right now in addition to our P-3 AIP platform. The vision is to migrate the capabilities from those two variants into the Family of Systems offloading capabilities to BAMS and the P-8.  The P-8s open architecture lends itself to the migration of some of these systems from the current platforms and we hope to do that in future increments of the P-8.

SLD: What is the planned fleet size?

Johansson: The current thinking is we need 12 squadrons, 7 aircraft each, and so the total would be around 120.  The budget is tight so we will see what the final number in the future but 120 is what we would like to see.  The initial operational capability (IOC) is in 2013 and FOC is in 2020, for all increments.

SLD: How will you handle littoral operations, which are very challenging for maritime surveillance?

Johansson : First of all, the littoral is challenging for everyone, friend and foe and the MPRF will not be alone in the littoral accomplishing maritime surveillance. Our community can bring quite a few sensors to the fight in the littoral and we continue to develop capabilities that can withstand the harsh littoral environment.  The Family of Systems, P-8 and BAMS would be able to support the Maritime Component Commander in the Littoral within all our mission areas.  We will have the ability to off-load the tactical information we are receiving via multiple communication paths keeping the CSG/ESG/JFMCC/COCOM aware of what we are doing as well.  Obviously, queuing will go a long way to getting the MPRF where we are wanted and results in more time on the targets our warfare commanders are interested in.

I think as we migrate, and there are unresolved operational issues with working in the littoral with P8. The P8 is envisioned by some as being a higher altitude ASW platform.  I don’t foresee the P-8 primarily operating at higher altitudes in all tactical phases of flight and in fact, the P-8 is designed to fly through the entire range of the P-3 flight envelope.  This will be a process of education as we start fielding the P-8. How do we work in littoral with at a higher altitude with other players in the mix?  In the past during the Cold War in a blue water environment, we used to drop buoys from high altitude all the time, there was nobody else out there.  In a littoral, I envision multiple friendly surface and low flying aircraft below you, and all these surface warriors and aviators below you are a little concerned about you dropping sonobuoys from high altitude.  As our CONOPS matures we will have to work to ensure deconfiction and the safety of those below us.

SLD: What advantages does the P-8 bring to the overall maritime surveillance effort?

Johansson:  The P8 gives you a range of capabilities that could be flexibly used in different ways. They will allow you the ability to fly from different bases farther from the fight.  The ability to reach more distant operational areas may impact our onstation time but the increased reliability of the aircraft and the inflight refueling capability will ultimately result in a force with increased responsiveness as well as more capability and flexibility for Combatant Commanders. We can protect our P8 fleet a little bit better by having a little bit of distance between us and the fight as well.  We will also be able to rapidly get into theater or into that area of responsibility that we need to be in, do our business and come back.

A Boeing P-8A Poseidon test conducts a test flight June 5, 2009.

Credit: USN Visual News Service 06/05/09

SLD: What about the challenge of transition?

Johansson: The crews will experience a challenging transition. Most squadrons come home from deployment as a P3 crew, take their leave, and start the P8 transition.  Six months later, they will be P8 crews. It’s a very compressed transition.  We envision a squadron taking 18 months between deployments to transition and redeploy.

SLD: One advantage of a manned versus unmanned platform is the ability of the crews to communicate with ground forces.  Could you comment on your judgments in this area?

Johansson: Some of our most rewarding missions have been when a General from a ground force calls you directly on the radio and tells you what he needs.  You provide him with the surveillance or reconnaissance he required and a short time later you see Marines or soldiers taking care of the issue.BAMS is designed as a tactical adjunct to the P-8.  As long as BAMS remains in that role, the combined capability of the P-8/BAMS aircraft actually offers ground forces far more capacity and capability. However, if BAMS becomes more of a strategic asset, it may be more difficult for a war fighter on the ground to get it in a position where it will do him some good tactically.  The operators are not within line of sight of the ground forces so the command and control to move UAVs around gets a little tricky, especially if they are being employed strategically but are required tactically. I think the P-8 will continue to be used tactically and provide a little more flexibility for the ground forces to utilize tactically.  Persistence may not be as good as the BAMS with its long dwell time but there is some merit to having a man in the cockpit with eyes on overhead. I point out that you concentrated on ground forces.  I would like to mention again that our interest is getting back to the maritime environment where we would be able to provide maritime domain awareness for the Fleet with the persistence of BAMS and the capabilities of the P-8 Poseidon.

SLD: And these are really not unmanned, except airborne?

Johansson: I’m not a big fan of calling them unmanned anymore.  I call them remotely-piloted, because it takes a lot of people to operate these systems. We moved to the family of systems (BAMS and P-8) because we felt that we could move some of the persistent ISR capabilities to a more capable platform, BAMS.  BAMS long dwell time can provide the persistence necessary more efficiently than a rotation of P-8 24/7/365.  Also, if we used P-8 to do that we would have to increase squadron manpower to give them the necessary crews to fly 24/7 MDA in addition to the ASW/ASUW missions.  We hope to have 5 orbits flying 24/7/365 to cover the maritime picture were required. The great thing about BAMS and P-8 is that they can work together to meet the COCOMS requirements.  BAMS can provide the persistence and the P-8 can be used to conduct the specialized skill-sets that the BAMS cannot.  BAMS can provide you the maritime picture while the P-8 either responds to BAMS intelligence or conducts ASW/ASUW.  This Family of Systems concept can become quite a lethal combination if we employ it correctly.