On May 23 and 24, 2016, during a Jacksonville Naval Air Station visit, we spent time with the P-8 and Triton community which is shaping a common culture guiding the transformation of the ASW and ISR side of Naval Air. The acquisition term for the effort is a “family of systems” whereby the P-3 is being “replaced” by the P-8 and the Triton Remotely Piloted Aircraft.
But clearly the combined capability is a replacement of the P-3 in only one sense – executing the anti-submarine warfare function. But the additional ISR and C2 enterprise being put in place to operate the combined P-8 and Triton capability is a much broader capability than the classic P-3. Much like the Osprey transformed the USMC prior to flying the F-35, the P-8/Triton team is doing the same for the US Navy prior to incorporating the F-35 within the carrier air wing.
In addition to the Wing Commander and his Deputy Commander, who were vey generous with their time and sharing of important insights, we had the opportunity to interviews with various members of the VP-16 P-8 squadron from CO and XO to Pilots, NFOs and Air Crew members, along with the wing weapons and training officer, the Triton FIT team, and key members of the Integrated Training Center. Those interviews will be published over the next few weeks.
The P-8/Triton capability is part of what we have described as 21st century air combat systems: software upgradeable, fleet deployed, currently with a multinational coalition emerging peer partnership. Already the Indians, the Aussies and the British are or will be flying the P-8s and all are in discussions to build commonality from the stand-up of the P-8 Forward.
Software upgradeability provides for a lifetime of combat learning to be reflected in the rewriting of the software code and continually modernizing existing combat systems, while adding new capabilities over the operational life of the aircraft. Over time, fleet knowledge will allow the US Navy and its partners to understand how best to maintain and support the aircraft while operating the missions effectively in support of global operations.
Reflecting on the visit there are five key takeaways from our discussions with Navy Jax.
A key point is how the USN is approaching the P-8/Triton combat partnership, which is the integration of manned, and unmanned systems, or what are now commonly called “remotes”. The Navy looked at the USAF experience and intentionally decided to not build a the Triton “remote” operational combat team that is stovepiped away from their P-8 Squadrons.
The team at Navy Jax is building a common Maritime Domain Awareness and Maritime Combat Culture and treats the platforms as partner applications of the evolving combat theory. The partnership is both technology synergistic and also aircrew moving between the Triton and P-8
The P-8 pilot and mission crews, after deploying with the fleet globally can volunteer to do shore duty flying Tritons. The number of personnel to fly initially the Tritons is more than 500 navy personnel so this is hardly an unmanned aircraft. Hence, inside a technological family of systems there is also an interchangeable family of combat crews.
With the P-8 crews operating at different altitudes from the Triton, around 50K, and having operational experience with each platform, they will be able to gain mastery of both a wide scale ocean ISR and focused ASW in direct partnership with the surface navy from Carrier Strike Groups, ARG/MEUs to independent operations for both undersea and sea surface rather than simply mastering a single platform.
This is a visionary foundation for the evolution of the software upgradeable platforms they are flying as well as responding to technological advances to work the proper balance by manned crews and remotes.
The second key point is that the Commanders of both P-8 aviator and the soon to be operational Triton community understand that for transformation to occur the surface fleet has to understand what they can do. This dynamic “cross-deck” actually air to ship exchange can totally reshape surface fleet operations. To accelerate this process, officers from the P-8 community are right now being assigned to surface ships to rework their joint concepts of operations.
Exercises are now in demonstration and operational con-ops to explain and real world demonstrate what the capabilities this new and exciting aspect of Naval Air can bring to the fleet. One example was a recent exercise with an ARG-MEU where the P-8 recently exercised with the amphibious fleet off of the Virginia Capes.
The third key point is that the software upgradeability aspect of the airplane has driven a very strong partnership with industry to be able to have an open-ended approach to modernization. On the aircraft maintenance and supply elements of having successful mission ready aircraft it is an important and focused work in progress both inside the Navy (including Supply Corps) and continuing an important relationship with industry, especially at the Tech Rep Squadron/Wing level.
The fourth point is how important P-8 and Triton software upgradeability is, including concurrent modification to trainer/simulators and rigorous quality assurance for the fidelity of the information in shaping the future of the enterprise. The P-8s is part of a cluster of airplanes which have emerged defining the way ahead for combat airpower which are software upgradeable: the Australian Wedgetail, the global F-35, and the Advanced Hawkeye, all have the same dynamic modernization potential to which will be involved in all combat challenges of maritime operations.
It is about shaping a combat learning cycle in which software can be upgraded as the user groups shape real time what core needs they see to rapidly deal with the reactive enemy. All military technology is relative to a reactive enemy. It is about the arsenal of democracy shifting from an industrial production line to a clean room and a computer lab as key shapers of competitive advantage.
The fifth point is about weaponization and its impact. We have focused for years on the need for a weapons revolution since the U.S. forces, and as core allies are building common platforms with the growth potential to operate new weapons as they come on line. The P-8 is flying with a weapon load out from the past, but as we move forward, the ability of the P-8 to manage off board weapons or organic weapons will be enabled.
For example, there is no reason a high speed cruise or hypersonic missile on the hard points of the P-8 could not be loaded and able to strike a significant enemy combat asset at great distance and speed. We can look forward to the day when P-8s crews will receive a Navy Cross for sinking a significant enemy surface combatant.
In short, the P-8/Triton is at the cutting edge of naval air transformation within the entire maritime combat enterprise. And the US Navy is not doing this alone, as core allies are part of the transformation from the ground up.