Matthew Clements visited Patrol Squadron 4 (VP-4) ‘Skinny Dragons’ at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington to discuss its maritime patrol pedigree and transition to the Boeing P-8A Poseidon after 50 years of Lockheed P-3 Orion operations


Aircraft BuNo 169009/009 touching down on runway 25 at Whidbey. This particular airframe is the VP-4 commander’s machine and sports colour Skinny Dragons markings and the YD tail code.

The Boeing P-8A Poseidon is a long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission aircraft. It is capable of broad-area maritime and littoral operations. It is also effective at humanitarian and search and rescue missions. A derivative of the Next-Generation Boeing 737-800, the P-8A combines performance, reliability and an advanced mission system.

P-8 Poseidons are assembled at the Boeing Company’s Renton facility in Washington, located about 20 miles south of Seattle. The 100th Boeing P-8, BuNo 169346/346, entered final assembly at Renton during March 2018, the aircraft will be delivered to the US Navy this year and is part of a string of backorders that Boeing said will keep its P-8 production line running until 2022. The US Navy plans to purchase 117 P-8As in total to replace its ageing P-3 Orion fleet.

Patrol Squadron 4

On March 18, 2016, a P-3C Orion from Patrol Squadron 4 (VP-4) ‘The Skinny Dragons’ departed Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii for the last time. Patrol Squadron 4 began a challenging tri-site deployment to three different areas of responsibility or AORs; SOUTHCOM, US Southern Command, AFRICOM, US Africa Command, and EUCOM, US European Command. All three AORs have been prolific hunting grounds for the P-3C Orion over the years. As a reflection of the squadron’s versatility to respond to dynamic tasking, on the June 13, 2016, VP-4 launched six P-3C aircraft from five different detachment sites to execute six different missions within 24 hours.

Patrol Squadron 4 has a long and decorated history as a permanent fixture in Hawaii having been resident on the island of Oahu, Hawaii since 1964.

Upon returning from its last P-3 deployment, VP-4 executed a permanent duty station change to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington to begin transition to the P-8A Poseidon and assignment to Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 (CPRW-10). The final VP-4 P-3C light took place on September 15, 2016 marking the end of 50 years of operations with the Lockheed P-3 Orion.

Patrol Squadron 4 was the first of three Hawaiian-based patrol squadrons to move to Whidbey Island, and transition to the P-8A.

By October 2017 both VP-9 ‘Golden Eagles’ and VP-47 ‘Golden Swordsmen’ were also relocated to CPRW-10 at the Pacific North West base, leaving only Patrol Squadron Special Projects Unit 2 (VPU-2) as the sole P-3 operator in Hawaii, albeit flying special project variants of the Orion.


The Skinny Dragons began their first portion of P-8A training during October 2016 with personnel from Patrol Squadron 30 (VP-30) ‘Pro’s Nest’, the US Navy’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. The training unit provided a detachment of personnel at Whidbey Island.

During the early part of 2017, VP-4 personnel travelled to Jacksonville to complete the remainder of its training.

Speaking about the transition process, the squadron’s current Commanding Officer, Cdr Chris Purcell told AIR International: “The first order of business was turning in the squadron’s P-3Cs and all the tools associated with its maintenance. Following that, squadron maintainers began their initial jobspecific training, which lasted about six weeks.

Concurrently, the aircrews began Phase 1 of their training consisting computer-based ground training. The maintainers then moved on to approximately four months of on-thejob training and aircrew began simulators and initial light training for two months. Following this, the aircrew began tactics training in the simulator and aircraft for two additional months. Culmination of the transition was a safe-for-light certification awarded by Commander, Naval Air Force, US Pacific Fleet [COMNAVAIRPAC].”

Elaborating further on how former P-3C aircrew retrain on the P-8A, Cdr Purcell said: “Fundamentally, the tactics remain the same and former P-3 aircrew spend most of their time learning the systems of the P-8.

VP-30 has a similar syllabus as the one I’ve outlined for aircrew joining the squadron post-transition. During the transition, VP-4 sailors executed over 3,000 light hours, 20,000 simulator hours, and 55,000 hours of maintenance training.”

The Skinny Dragons achieved safe-forlight certification to operate the P-8A on May 5, 2017 at NAS Whidbey Island, becoming the first US Navy West Coast squadron to complete the transition from the P-3C Orion to P-8A Poseidon.

Hawaiian ops

During late 2017, two P-8A aircraft assigned to VP-4 deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii as part of a Pacific Command Maritime Homeland Defense detachment. This involved the rotation of two aircraft as part of a three-month detachment between October and December.

Cdr Purcell said: “The Skinny Dragons returned [to Hawaii] as the first maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadron on the West Coast to fly the P-8A in the area. The detachment supported a 24/7 requirement for maritime homeland defence. While there, aircrew flew pilot proficiency and other training events in the working areas [close to the islands]. As a ready asset, the aircraft can be called on to perform search-and rescue, maritime domain awareness, and fleet exercise support.”

AIR International asked Cdr Purcell if there are any plans to have permanently-based maritime patrol aircraft based back in Hawaii, he said: “There are no plans to permanently station a squadron in Hawaii. However, there are plans to have a presence in support of the standing maritime homeland defence requirement. All [P-8] squadrons at Whidbey Island will support that requirement on a rotational basis.”

Sailors assigned to Patrol Squadron 4 (VP-4) use a MHU-83 Munitions Handling Unit to load a AGM-84D Harpoon missile onto a P-8A Poseidon aircraft during a proficiency exercise at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan during the squadron’s deployment to the US 7th Fleet area of operation.
Mass Communication Specialist Juan Sua/US Navy

The P-8A has a service ceiling of 41,000ft (12,500m), flies at up to 490kts true airspeed, and can patrol at a range up to 4,500 miles 9km) from base without refuelling. Additionally, the P-8 has twice the sonobuoy processing capability and can carry 30% more of them than any other maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft currently flying.

AIR International asked Cdr Purcell what other benefits the P-8A has over the P-3C Orion, he said: “The P-8 brings a modern level of comfort for aircrew, and ease of maintenance for our maintenance personnel. This enables our sailors to better focus on tactics and reliably deliver mission ready aircraft to military Commanders. Additionally, the P-8A leverages a commercial flight management system that maximizes time on station by flying optimal profiles.”

Sensor rich

The P-8A is a sensor rich platform equipped with an array of systems on-board that enables the aircraft to perform in antisubmarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), and shipping interdiction, along with electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) roles.

APY-10 radar

Based on the previous APS-137 radar, Raytheon’s APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar generates accurate and actionable information for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and is fully integrated into Boeing’s mission control and display system for control, display and data distribution on the Poseidon.

The P-8A’s radar is also the only system of its type to provide a dedicated short exposure submarine periscope detection capability as well as ultra-high resolution imaging modes for maritime and overland operations. The APY-10 is capable of operating in all weather conditions, day and night in a variety of operational environments.

Raytheon promotes its APY-10 as a maritime, littoral and overland surveillance radar; in short it’s a radar capable of surveillance in all three environments. It is an improved unit based on the APS-137 system. Raytheon claims to have reduced size, weight and power requirement with its APY-10 design, which is says increases the radar’s mean time between failure, with additional target track capability, and a new colour weather avoidance mode. It’s fully plugged to the aircraft’s mission control and display system which controls, displays and distributes data around the back cabin operator consoles and the flight deck. Raytheon also says the APY-10 is the only system of its type to provide a dedicated short exposure submarine periscope detection mode as well as ultra-high resolution imaging modes for maritime and overland operations.

Operating modes include overland and water modes, colour weather, synthetic aperture radar, inverse synthetic aperture radar, periscope detection and navigation.

Synthetic aperture radar creates two dimensional imagery of objects including landscapes for the overland role, and does so by using the motion of the radar’s antenna over the target area. The term synthetic aperture is created by two functions; distance travelled and time. More specifically the distance travelled over the target in the time taken for the radar pulses to return to the antenna; image resolution is typically higher the larger the aperture.

Similarly, inverse synthetic aperture radar also generates two-dimensional imagery but uses the movement of a target as opposed to the antenna to create the synthetic aperture; the resultant image is of such quality that it allows a surface target to be detected and classified at long range using a variety of resolutions.

Electronic support measures

The P-8A is also equipped with the ALQ-240(V)1 electronic support measures system developed by Northrop Grumman was designed to provide a significant increase in capability for operations in complex maritime battle spaces. Featuring adaptive tuning, precise direction finding and geo-location capabilities, the ALQ-240(V)1 enables aircrew to detect and identify radar and other electronic threats to the aircraft and vessels. Northrop Grumman also provides its early warning self-protection system, and an embedded GPS/INS system.

P-8A BuNo 169329/329 waiting for departure clearance from runway 25 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.
An aviation ordnance man uses the controller functions of an MHU-83 to load a AGM-84D Harpoon missile to a P-8A Poseidon aircraft during a proficiency exercise at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan.
Mass Communication Specialist Juan Sua/US Navy


AAQ-24 directional infrared countermeasures system. According to Northrop Grumman, the AAQ-24 simultaneously tracks and defeats threats in clutter environments, performs fast, accurate threat detection and simultaneous jamming in all current IR threat bands (I, II and IV), counters all fielded IR missile threats using a single generic jam waveform, and completes end-to-end self-testing to reduce life-cycle maintenance.

The AAR-54(V) is a missile approach warning system also designed and produced by Northrop Grumman. According to the company, the AAR-54 systems protects the P-8 with long-range and short shot missile detection, rapid automatic cuing to the countermeasures system, and provides the flight deck crew with good situational awareness within the battle space via the heads-up display or the aircraft’s radar warning receiver display. The system passively detects ultraviolet energy from the missile’s exhaust plume, tracks multiple sources, rapidly and accurately classifies each source, and provides threat information to the aircraft’s AAQ-24 directional infrared countermeasures system for optimum response.

Electronic warfare

The ALQ-213 electronic warfare management system, which according to its producer Terma is the core system that integrates findividual subsystems into one combined system, provides the flight deck crew with a single interface to all self-protection subsystems; these comprise an electronic warfare management unit combined with the tactical data unit, and a defensive aids controller.

The P-8A is equipped with Northrop Grumman’s ALQ-240(V)1 electronic support measures system, which provides adaptive tuning, precise direction finding and geolocation of radar and other electronic threats to the aircraft and Navy vessels.

Northrop Grumman’s P-8A subsystems also include the early warning self-protection system, commonly referred to as EWSP, and the embedded GPS/INS system.

Imaging sensor

L3 Wescam’s MX-20 high-magnification, multispectral imaging sensor is used for surveillance.

Optional sensors include; a high-definition thermal imager, a colour low-light surveillance camera, a daylight surveillance camera, a highdefinition low-light surveillance camera, a short wave infrared camera, and a choice of laser designator, rangefinder, illuminator, or tracker.

Advanced airborne sensor

In a specialised configuration, the P-8A can be fitted with the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS), a radar system first flown on P-8A test aircraft BuNo 167951 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland on May 20, 2015. That flight was rated as successful and marked a significant milestone for the Naval Air Systems Command, Raytheon and Boeing team.

Raytheon’s APS-154 radar is a new generation of maritime patrol and reconnaissance radar designed to generate highly accurate battle space information and situational awareness. When configured with the APS-154, a P-8A Poseidon is classed as an integrated maritime intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting platform, and will replace the APS-149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) carried on specially-modified P-3C Orion aircraft.

P-8A BuNo 169004/004 commencing engine start on the flight line at Whidbey Island, Washington.
Aviation ordnance men assigned to VP-4 load a Mk54 torpedo on a P-8A Poseidon aircraft during a proficiency exercise on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa Japan.
Mass Communication Specialist Juan Sua/US Navy

Sharp teeth

The P-8A has five internal and six external stations for AGM-84D Harpoon, AGM-84H and AGM-84K SLAM-ER, Mk54 torpedo, missiles, mines, torpedoes, bombs, and the HAASW or High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare weapon system.

The first Mk54 torpedo was successfully test fired from a P-8A test aircraft during October 2011.

Discussing how VP-4 aircrews train for weapon employment, Cdr Purcell said: “We train in the simulators with weapons often, which gives aircrews confidence to accurately deliver missiles and torpedoes. Our crews and maintainers are afforded multiple opportunities during home-cycle to load and employ exercise weapons.”

In 2017, Boeing announced the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability or HAAWC which is a kit that can be likened to the tail and guidance kits fitted to a standard dumb bomb to create a Joint Direct Attack Munition. In a similar way to JDAM, the HAAWC uses an air launch accessory kit comprising a GPS guidance system and folding wings fitted onto a Mk54 torpedo. After release from the P-8’s weapon bay, using the wings, the HAAWC flies to a programmed point and altitude from where the wings separate and an Mk28 stabilizer (parachute) deploys allowing the Mk54 to achieve desired water entry conditions. Once submerged, the Mk54’s standard sub-surface guidance is initiated. The ALA effectively transforms a standard Mk54 torpedo into an all-weather, precision-guided glide weapon, which operates in either GPS-aided or GPS-denied environments. Capability wise, the system increases the stand-off range and release altitude of the Mk54 torpedo against a submarine and does so in a cost effective way; the HAAWC is fully compatible with existing US Navy loading and handling equipment, and five such torpedoes fit the P-8A weapon bay – the Navy’s requirement.

Like every weapon system in Uncle Sam’s inventory, there are different variants of the Mk54 torpedo. The variants are distinguishable by MOD numbers; the ALA kit can be used with MOD 0 and MOD 1 Mk54s.

HAAWC’s capability potentially transforms the typically low-altitude anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission, as practised for decades by P-3C Orion crews who are required to skim the wave tops at around 200ft to release torpedoes on their designated targets. In January 2018 the UK Ministry of Defence announced that P-8A Poseidon aircraft destined for the RAF would also carry Mk54 torpedoes.

Three types of sonobuoy are employed by the P-8A; the SSQ-77B Vertical Line Array Directional Frequency Analysis and Recording (VLAD) omnidirectional sonar unit, SSQ-62E Directional Command Activated Sonobuoy System (DICASS), a command activated sonobuoy, and the SSQ-53F Directional Frequency Analysis and Recording (DIFAR) sonobuoy.

An Aviation Electronics Technician de-ices a P-8A Poseidon at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island during VP-4’s fleet readiness training.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juan Sua/US Navy

Far East Dragons

The first wave of VP-4 P-8As departed NAS Whidbey Island, Washington for Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan on April 2, 2018, at the start of a scheduled deployment to the US 7th Fleet’s Area of Responsibility (AOR).

This inaugural deployment marked the first time VP-4 had operated internationally with the P-8A.

Discussing the 7th Fleet deployment the then squadron Commanding Officer, Cdr Bryan Hager said: “This deployment is the culmination of over 18 months of dedicated effort from every Skinny Dragon. VP-4 has concluded the first Fleet Response Training Plan in preparation for the West Coast’s inaugural P-8A deployment. The Skinny Dragons will take what we learn from this deployment in 7th Fleet and carry our experiences forward on future deployments to other areas of operation.”

Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45) ‘Pelicans’ based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida was also deployed to the 7th Fleet AOR, stationed at Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan. VP-45’s deployment marked the first time East and West Coast P-8A squadrons had been deployed to the same AOR simultaneously.

While deployed, VP-4’s Executive Officer Cdr lewis, orchestrated opportunities to work with maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadrons from various nations to improve tactics, techniques and procedures while also enhancing security and cooperation throughout the Western Pacific.lewis attributed the success of the cooperative work to the rigorous training syllabus undertaken by VP-4 personnel during the 12 months leading to its deployment. During the deployment VP-4 crews staged multiple detachments around southeast Asia including Thailand, Singapore and Bali.

Extending the Dragon’s legs

The P-8A cannot use the Navy’s typical hoseand- drogue aerial refuelling system but has a receptacle on the upper-forward fuselage for the US Air Force type boom system.

Infact the P-8A is only the second Navy aircraft to be equipped with the boom receptacle, the first being the E-6B Mercury nearly 30 years ago. Both types are reliant on US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender tankers, and in the future the KC-46 Pegasus. For extended endurance, a P-8A can carry six additional fuel tanks, which are housed in the forward and rear cargo compartments.

On April 13, 2017 the KC-135R-equipped 459th Air Refueling Wing based at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland was the first unit to aerial refuel a P-8A Poseidon; the Navy patroller was assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VX-1) ‘Pioneers’ based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland home of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

Discussing what the milestone event meant for P-8A testing and the programme with AIR International, 459th Operations Group deputy commander, Lt Col David Williams said: “We have a longstanding relationship with NAVAIR and we were excited to play a role in assisting the engineers with the development of the boom refuelling capabilities of the P-8A.”

Elaborating further on the milestone, VX-1 test director, Cdr Shannon Hoover said: “The intent behind the aerial refuelling capability on the P-8A is to enhance strategic mission effectiveness by extending the range and endurance of the platform.

Prior to contacting the 459th for tanker support, pilots with NAVAIR underwent rigorous training toward in-light refuelling certification; a skillset unfamiliar to many Navy aircrew members.

“We in the maritime patrol community have never had an organic tanking capability, so we are learning how to get this done. The pilots completed ground school, as well as a simulator training course, both in the E-6B Mercury and the P-8A operational light trainers. When it came time to start scheduling a tanker to take us to the next phase of training. We reached out to the 459th.”

At present P-8A aerial refuelling is only being conducted by NAVAIR during the type’s ongoing test phase, but once the capability is cleared for the fleet squadrons, aerial refuelling will bring increased on-station time and range.

Working with Triton

In the not too distant future, the P-8A fleet will be complemented by approximately 40 MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles procured by the Navy under a programme dubbed Broad Area Maritime Surveillance or BAMS which will provide continuous maritime surveillance capability.

Broad-area maritime and littoral operations are already a capability held by the P-8A, but it’s an aircraft that continues to evolve to match technological advancements; over time being paired with the MQ-4C Triton is a good example of that, one that will expand the US Navy’s surveillance coverage across vast reaches of ocean.