Efficient Acquisition, Effective Aeroplane

Mark Ayton spoke with Capt Tony Rossi and Lt Cdr Will Nuse on board a P-8A Poseidon assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 at Pax River

P-8A POSEIDON

img_56-1_65.jpg
P-8A Poseidon test aircraft BuNo 167954 during an air refuelling test sortie with KC-135R 61-0320, the tanker assigned to the 412th Test Wing based at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Naval Air Systems Command

Sitting on board a P-8A Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft affords an immediate appreciation of how different the aircraft is from its civilian sister, the Next Generation Boeing 737. Modifications included on a P-8A are made to enable the aircraft to conduct the US Navy’s maritime surveillance requirements. Every P-8A is in fact a hybrid comprising a 737-800 fuselage and a 737-900 wing.

According to official US Department of Defense documents, the P-8A incorporates an integrated sensor suite that includes radar and electro-optical and electronic signal detection sensors to detect, identify, locate and track surface targets. An integrated acoustic sonobuoy launch and monitoring system detects, identifies, locates and tracks submarine targets. Sensor systems also provide tactical situational awareness information for dissemination to fleet forces and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information for exploitation by the joint intelligence community. The aircraft is also equipped with aircraft survivability enhancement and vulnerability reduction systems comprising a directed infrared countermeasure system to improve survivability against infrared missile threats, fuel tank inerting and fire protection systems to reduce aircraft vulnerability.

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) is integrating the Multi-static Active Coherent (MAC) sensor system to provide a wide-area, active anti-submarine warfare (ASW) search capability. Future upgrades currently include the addition of the High-Altitude ASW Weapon Capability (HAAWC), the network-enabled AGM-84L Harpoon II+, and enhancements to the MAC sensor system.

T-Birds and Fleet Birds

T-Birds, the colloquial name given to six P-8A test aircraft assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) and VX-1 ‘Pioneers’, have been assigned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River since the first aircraft arrived on April 10, 2010.

img_58-1_72.jpg
Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) P-8A Poseidon test aircraft BuNo 167954 releases a Mk54 torpedo. Greg Davis/Naval Air Systems Command

The US Navy fleet, led by Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11 (CPRW- 11) based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, met its initial operational capability (IOC) in 2013. Patrol Squadron 16 (VP- 16) ‘Eagles’ was the first operational unit equipped with the Poseidon and had the honour of making IOC on the latest patrol aircraft to enter US Naval service. Historymaking events didn’t stop at IOC. VP-16 also made history in December 2013 on two counts; it made the maiden deployment of the P-8A and undertook its own maiden P-8A deployment. At the end of that tour of duty, the Eagles had flown over 3,800 hours The US Navy fleet, led by Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11 (CPRW- 11) based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, met its initial operational capability (IOC) in 2013. Patrol Squadron 16 (VP- 16) ‘Eagles’ was the first operational unit equipped with the Poseidon and had the honour of making IOC on the latest patrol aircraft to enter US Naval service. Historymaking events didn’t stop at IOC. VP-16 also made history in December 2013 on two counts; it made the maiden deployment of the P-8A and undertook its own maiden P-8A deployment. At the end of that tour of duty, the Eagles had flown over 3,800 hours in 369 sorties.

Commenting on VP-16’s successful deployment after the squadron’s return to Jacksonville, the then Commodore of CPRW- 11, Captain Sean Liedman, said: “Throughout the P-8A’s maiden operational deployment, the reliability of the aircraft was proven over the course of 17 detachments throughout the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean region, including detachments to the Republic of the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Each detachment was executed with only a small level of expeditionary maintenance support, yet maintained high mission completion rates.”

According to the then Commanding Officer of VP-16, Cdr Dan Papp: “The P-8A exceeded P-3 performance in mission completion rate, on-time take-off rate, number of in-flight aborts and persistence at range. The aircraft proved to be a gamechanger for theatre ASW in the Western Pacific, due to its increased range and endurance, higher dash speed to get to the area of action faster and larger passive search area, due to its capability to process 64 versus 32 sonobuoys. Additionally, the P-8A’s acoustic processor demonstrated better reliability and longer passive detection ranges than a P-3.”

Papp added that the ALQ-240 electronic support measures (ESM) system significantly extended the tactical surveillance range of the P-8A and enabled aircrews to locate quickly surface contacts of interest in the dense maritime environment of the Western Pacific. In addition to the ESM system’s performance, he also explained how the datalink and sensor fusion capability of the P-8A enhanced aircrew situational awareness and enabled higher-fidelity tactical reporting to operational commanders. He added: “P-8A demonstrated high levels of chat on SIPRnet [the US Department of Defense Secret Internet Protocol Router network], Link 16, and Link 11 connectivity, which enabled aircrews to better integrate with US and Allied naval and joint platforms operating in the Western Pacific.”

Fleet Transition

By the third quarter of 2016, the US Navy was halfway through its P-8A transition plan, and deploying two squadrons at a time to its numbered fleets in the Pacific, Mediterranean and Gulf. Transition refers to the squadronby- squadron change from the legendary P-3C Orion to the P-8A Poseidon. As each squadron enters transition training, its crews spend six months learning to fly the aircraft and a subsequent 12-months learning to operate it effectively and tactically. Deployment to one of the permanent deployment sites follows, usually to the Pacific-based 7th Fleet or the Gulf-based 5th Fleet areas of operations.

Traditionally, west-coast-based P-3C squadrons deployed to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of operations, and the eastcoast-based P-3C squadrons went to the 4th and 6th Fleets areas of operations. That’s changed, at least for the time being, because P-8A transition started on the east coast at Jacksonville, so the six squadrons assigned to CPRW-11 (VP-5 ‘Mad Foxes’, VP-8A ‘Tigers’, VP-10 ‘Red Lancers’, VP- 16 ‘Eagles’, VP-26 ‘Tridents’ and VP-45 ‘Pelicans’) initially deployed to the 7th Fleet and more recently the 5th Fleet.

Once the fleet’s transition is complete, when all six patrol squadrons assigned to CPRW-10 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, are operating the P-8A, the deployment sites may get shuffled around. The fleet currently has limitations with P-8A deployments, because of the number of squadrons available post-transition. Patrol Squadron 4 (VP-4) ‘Skinny Dragons’ just completed transition as the first Whidbeybased P-8A unit; VP-47 ‘Golden Swordsmen’ has just started transition; both were previously based at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

For completeness’ sake, VP-30 ‘Pro’s Nest’, the P-3 and P-8A Fleet Replacement Squadron, a training unit, is also based at Jacksonville.

P-8A the Programme

The US Navy’s current P-8A programme of record, is for 109 aircraft, a number primarily constrained by the Navy’s budget, with a preferred total of 117. This is the term used to describe a programme with approved funding in the Future Year Defense Program through the Program Objective Memorandum, making it a line item of record in the budget.

NAVAIR is currently on contract for 80 of the 109 aircraft. The remaining 29 aircraft are planned to be bought in the two final production lots (Lot 9 and Lot 10) over the next few years. Boeing delivers eight aircraft each year

That’s the American order book. Australia, the UK and Norway have also committed to the P-8A. Australia and the UK have both signed letters of intent or contracts for their respective procurement requirements as part of a cooperative programme. Production Lots 6, 7 and 8 each include four aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force. The Royal Air Force will procure nine: two in Lot 8; three in Lot 9; and four in Lot 10.

Four other nations are interested in procuring the P-8A. For the US Navy, international sales of P-8A help the service in two ways: they extend the life of the P-8A production line, which in turn affords more time for the US Government to increase its buy to 117 aircraft; and it allows more time for prospective international customers to buy in before the production line shuts down.

Additionally, when NAVAIR buys aircraft for the US Navy it also buys more aircraft for the RAAF and RAF orders, as is the case with Lot 8. Buying in bulk is always cheaper. Consequently, the US Navy, RAAF and RAF all benefit from a lower per unit cost.

What’s more, RAF P-8As will be delivered in the same configuration as those serving in the US Navy and RAAF fleets. The UK is intent on buying the standard configuration and not buying aircraft to customise into a configuration unique to the RAF, an approach no doubt driven by the whole mess that was Nimrod MRA4. Maintaining commonality with the US Navy and RAAF P-8A fleets will enable the RAF to benefit from interoperability and sustainment as each increment upgrade comes along.

ADVANCED AIRBORNE SENSOR

NAVAIR’s Program Executive Office for air, ASW, assault and special mission programmes is responsible for the development and integration of Raytheon’s APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor. Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) completed the first flight with an APS-154 fitted to a P-8A Poseidon from Naval Air Station Patuxent River on May 20, 2015. Flight testing continued through 2015.

Raytheon’s APS-154 AAS is an air-to-ground radar system that is expected to replace the APS- 149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) currently carried on modified, special mission P-3C Orion aircraft, which has capability to detect and track moving targets, and provide ondemand, actionable sensor data to support precision targeting against threats at sea and on land. According to NAVAIR, like LSRS, the APS-154 AAS is an integrated intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting system, with mast and periscope detection capability.

The metric behind the desired requirement for an additional eight aircraft (117 rather than 109) is based on analysis set in wartime, and on the US Navy accepting a certain level of risk (decreasing the number of aircraft) against the analysis.

Production Leverage

We briefly touched on the P-8A’s hybrid character at the beginning of this feature. Because the 737-800 and 737-900 remain in production for the gargantuan commercial market served by the 737, and after decades of production, Boeing’s build process is pretty slick. On average the 737 production line at Renton rolls out multiple 737s every day of the week; the company’s process is tried and tested. This has allowed NAVAIR to push much of the P-8A’s production from retrofit modification into forward fit on the Renton line.

For instance, NAVAIR could buy a 737-800 from Boeing and after roll-out deliver the aircraft to a modification line to cut a hole in the aft under fuselage to install a weapon bay. That’s expensive. It involves building structure that’s not required and retrofitting the necessary equipment.

According to Captain Tony Rossi, PMA- 290’s P-8A Program Manager, NAVAIR has pushed that kind of work back down through Boeing’s subsuppliers as far as is possible to save money. Consequently, P-8A aircraft are built much more efficiently and cost effectively, “which over the time of P-8A production to date, has resulted in a beneficial cost reduction curve based on learning from, and refining how the aircraft is built”.

Capt Rossi and his staff at PMA-290 continue focusing on completing US Navy production, buying the number of aircraft required and procuring the aircraft required by Australia, the UK and Norway to provide each with the complimentary capability they require. Work is continuing on the improvements required to mission systems as part of the P-8A’s spiral development programme.

Because the P-8A has now operated in the US Navy fleet for four years, the aircraft is no longer in its development phase but moving into its sustainment phase. The first aircraft from Lot 1 and Lot 2 delivered to the fleet will require depot level inspections and repairs over the next couple of years. To meet depot-level maintenance needs, PMA-290 has issued a competitive tender to procure P-8A engine and airframe depot level maintenance. A contract will be awarded in 2017 and will run for several years to provide depot-level maintenance for those early production aircraft.

At this early stage of the P-8A’s service life, most of the work required is on the aircraft and the engines and not mission systems. These are aspects widely undertaken on commercial 737s. Consequently, PMA-290 is seeking companies with well-established 737 maintenance lines.

Aircraft Configurations

Out in the fleet, squadron aircraft are currently configured to either Increment 2 ECP 1 or ECP 2. Such a name begs an explanation. The rather awkward title refers to the second increment of the P-8A’s spiral development and the first, and second, engineering change proposal. So what does it add to the original Increment 1 configuration that featured the APY-10 radar, the acoustic system, the ALQ-240 ESM system, and the MX-20 HD EO/IR imaging and targeting system?

Increment 2 ECP 1 added the MAC sensor system (to the acoustic processor) to give the P-8A a wide area ASW search capability.

During the second and third quarters of 2016, VX-20 was testing Increment 2 ECP 2, featuring a second engineering change proposal that enhances the MAC with a better operator interface, better noise reduction and therefore greater probability of submarine detection. ECP 2 software has since been fielded to the fleet for retrofit.

VX-20 is NAVAIR’s developmental test squadron for the P-8A and all other multiengine types operated by the US Navy. One of the squadron’s bread-and-butter tasks is to test new ECP software loads in the laboratory and on the aircraft in flight. That means initial subsystem lab testing, testing in the full system lab, the stage that fully replicates the aircraft, followed by ground and then flight testing on the aircraft.

Each ECP for the P-8A is mostly software driven, for instance ECP 1, which involved integration of the MAC comprised entirely of software comprising new algorithms and a new operator machine interface. ECP 2 is a mix of hardware comprising two new receivers for integrating the AIS and wiring and software comprising new algorithms to the MAC and the AIS interface.

img_60-1_70.jpg
P-8A test aircraft BuNo 167954 makes the first aerial refuelling contact with the Speckled Trout KC-135R 61-0320 during a test sortie flown from Edwards Air Force Base, California. US Naval Air Systems Command
img_61-1_56.jpg
Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16) ‘Eagles’ made the maiden deployment of the P-8A in December 2013 to the US 7th Fleet area of operations. At the end of that tour of duty, the Eagles had flown over 3,800 hours in 369 sorties. Mass Communication Specialist Gulianna Dunn/US Navy

Weapons

P-8As assigned to fleet squadrons are currently cleared to carry two kinetic weapons, the Mk54 torpedo and the AGM- 84D Block 1C Harpoon all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile system to engage submarine and maritime surface targets.

During the second half of 2016, Boeing and VX-20 conducted two successful weapon integration test flights of the HAAWC, a kit comprising wings, a tail and a guidance section interfaced to the aircraft. The independently procured kit converts a standard Mk54 to an HAAWC torpedo. HAAWC torpedoes allow the aircraft to operate at medium to higher altitudes, maximise sensor performance and launch torpedoes in the anti-ship role.

Captive carriage testing was underway last August, and buffet load margins, safe separation testing and software integration followed.

Fleet Employment

Fleet P-8A squadrons are generally operating the aircraft in the same way as they previously employed the P-3C Orion, but there are differences. The P-3C had a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). In order to use the system and to use it to good effect, the P-3C flies at low-level quite a lot, and the MAD is for all intents and purposes the primary reason for low-level operation. The P-8A is not equipped with a MAD, so in general the Poseidon operates at higher altitudes determined by a mix of conditions (weather and cloud cover) and which sensors are to be used to meet the mission requirements.

When the P-8A was first proposed and eventually selected as the Navy’s new maritime surveillance aircraft, there was initial concern for crews transitioning from the straight wing, propeller-driven P-3C Orion to the swept wing P-8A Poseidon, but according to Capt Rossi the fleet is very happy with the capability. He said: “The higher airspeed means a slightly higher turn radius, but because the autopilot is coupled into the mission system, and the autopilot is functional, very reliable and gives the operator the ability to get ahead of the aircraft [in terms of the mission plan], the integration and automation mitigates the higher turn radius.

According to Lt Cdr Nuse, a P-8A pilot with VX-20’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft Flight Test Division: “One operating aspect of the P-3C was the amount of high-angle bank manoeuvre, which required a lot of movement of the power lever and the controls to quickly turn around to get back to where the sonobuoy drop was missed. Thanks to the integration and automation on the P-8A, the operator can get much further ahead of the aircraft that the crew does not run into such a situation and are therefore not required to do many of the things required in a P-3C. Flying a little higher and a little faster more than makes-up for that.”

img_61-2_37.jpg
A High Altitude Anti-Submarine Weapon Capability (HAAWC) torpedo was released from a P-8A Poseidon during safe separation testing. The HAAWC is an add-on kit for the Navy’s Mk54 lightweight torpedo that allows the P-8A to release the weapon from high altitude. Naval Air Systems Command
img_61-3_14.jpg
Two AGM 84 Harpoon test missiles release from VX-20 P-8A Poseidon BuNo 167953 during a weapons separation test. Naval Air Systems Command
img_62-1_68.jpg
Aviation Ordnancemen load an AGM-84K SLAM-ER missile on a P-8A Poseidon in preparation for a conventional weapons technical proficiency inspection. Mass Communication Specialist Jason Kofonow/US Navy

Flight Deck

Discussing the Poseidon’s flight deck, Lt Cdr Nuse explained the major difference from a commercial 737 NG. He said: “The electrical system is different; the overhead panel in the P-8A’s cockpit is about twice the size of a commercial airliner, because the P-8A has a lot more buses running the mission system in the back; and we can switch our navigation references from magnetic [normal] to true. Also unlike a 737 NG cockpit, we also have a weapons control panel, a panel to control our self-protection suite, and a panel for aerial refuelling.”

The mission system has a low-level mode to meet the requirements of surveillance missions flown much lower and potentially a lot slower than a standard 737. There are many safety systems on a 737 NG flight deck that alert the crew whenever they are out of configuration, for example when landing. By comparison, a P-8A often operates in flight regimes that would cause a commercial variant to alert the crew. The P-8A’s low-level operation mode locks out some of the safety functions, so the alerts are not sounded and are therefore not a nuisance when flying in that flight regime on purpose.

Lt Cdr Nuse explained the lock-outs are mostly from the electronic ground proximity warning system alerts, which sound when the aircraft is out of configuration. For example, flying around with the flaps extended beyond a certain degree would start the warning, because the landing gear is not down.

Discussing the five displays across the flight deck, Nuse said they are the same as fitted in a commercial aircraft: “But a commercial 737 does not have a sixth display on the lower centre console. The P-8A’s sixth display provides the pilots with an interface to the mission system in the back, and also displays the EO/IR feed, radar picture, and the tactical sonobouy drop pattern. After take-off, the lower console centre display shows a repeat of tactical situational displays used by the mission crew. Two smaller displays, one on either side of the sixth display, show navigational information.”

Explaining the automation of the Poseidon, Nuse gave an example from the P-3. “When a TACCO [the tactical coordinator] on a P-3 wants a certain sonobouy pattern in the water, he or she places a picture of the pattern on the display for the pilots to manually fly to the right points in the air from which to drop the sonobouys. If you are close enough to those points, the system will automatically drop.

“The P-8A’s robust navigation system is tied to the mission system, which allows the pilot to switch into a tactical mode that allows the TACCO to control the lateral navigation of the aircraft. So when a tactic is placed on the water to lay a pattern of sonobouys, or to set up and orbit, the TACCO can set that up and essentially get control of the aircraft’s lateral navigation from the back end and can fly the aircraft without lots of explanation and drawing of pictures. In this sense we have leveraged the automation already built into the aircraft to accomplish the mission.”

The robust navigation system mentioned earlier is slightly different from the version equipping a commercial 737. The term robust is used because of the additional ability of the P-8A system which enables the aircraft fly out to the middle of an ocean, stay on station and return to base. In comparison, most commercial 737s operate within range of land-based navigation points. The P-8A’s navigation system also allows the flight crew to create a flight plan, referred to as the magenta line. Once created, the aircraft does its absolute best to fly the magenta line. That’s typically controlled using the multi-function control and display units, keypads that allow the pilots to communicate with the flight mission computer.

img_62-2_39.jpg
P-8A Poseidon test aircraft BuNo 167956 assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VX-1) ‘Pioneers’ at RAF Lossiemouth during Exercise Joint Warrior. Matthew Clements
img_63-1_64.jpg
Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VX-1) move an Mk54 torpedo from a P-8A Poseidon. Mass Communication Specialist Kenneth Abbate/US Navy
img_63-2_40.jpg
An electronic warfare operator monitors his work station on a P-8A Poseidon during a search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Mass Communication Specialist Eric Pastor/US Navy
img_63-3_20.jpg
An Aircrewman Operator assigned to VP-16, unloads a sonobuoy from a rack aboard a P-8A Poseidon. Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney/US Navy

The navigation system applies GPS approach capability to a tactical situation to ensure sonobouy drops are not missed, and uses automation to offload some of the pilots flying inputs (they continue to monitor) enabling them to concentrate more on the tactical picture and stay farther ahead in the mission plan.

Located on the lower aft centre console is a panel used to control sonobouys, weapon bay doors, the EO/IR turret, and the control that allows the TACCO to launch a weapon. Discussing weapons launch authority, Lt Cdr Nuse said: “We have ultimate launch authority, but give the TACCO weapon launch authority. We also have the ultimate veto. Typically, we [the pilots] don’t launch weapons, simply because the TACCO has more situational awareness when tracking either a submarine or a target, and can control the targeting a little bit better than the flight deck crew.”

Back Cabin

Current P-8As are fitted with five operator workstations, but work is ongoing to increase the number to six. Each workstation is the same to provide the crew commonality and the ability to reconfigure a workstation in the event, for example, the TACCO wants to sit in a specific position next to either the radar or acoustic operator.

Some workstations have the ability to control the MX-20 EO/IR turret when fitted with a joystick. Even without a joystick, the operator can pull-up the display menu and use the track ball to control the turret.

Each 27in touch screen can be configured by the operator with different windows (portals) to suit their personal set-up preference.

The P-8A is equipped with more computers and therefore has more processing power than the P-3C, which provides the crew with more ways to manipulate the data displayed and, in turn, allows the operator to extract more information.

On a P-3C, mission crew use two plots, one displaying lines and one displaying energy and its frequency to determine noise in the water, but the P-3C’s system does not overlay the two plots particularly well, leaving the operator to interpret the two manually. Fast-forward to the P-8A, where automation places the two plots together so the operator can see the energy intensity on a topological map and extract and interpret more information and in a different way.

Toward the aft end of the cabin are the racks used to store sonobuoys. These are located close to the launchers of which there are two types: three sonobuoy rotary launchers (SLRs) each holding ten buoys designated X, Y and Z; and three single-shot launchers designated 1, 2 and 3. Simple math tells us that a P-8A crew can have 33 sonobuoys loaded at any one time, all six launchers full and ready for launch. When the TACCO selects a sonobuoy from one of the three SLRs, the launcher spins to the right store.

It’s probably worth remembering that a sonobuoy relays acoustic information from a hydrophone via a radio channel to the operators on board the launch aircraft.

Sonobuoy deployment is more automated on the P-8A compared to the P-3C. In general, the TACCO selects a pattern to be dropped and uses different types of sonobuoys in that pattern. There are two main types: active sonobuoys emit sound energy (pings) into the water and listen for the returning echo before transmitting range and bearing information back to the aircraft; passive sonobuoys emit nothing into the water, but listen for acoustic sounds and signals, which the hydrophone transmits back to the launch aircraft on a radio channel.

The TACCO passes the pattern details to the flight station and the request is entered in to the flight management computer. The autopilot flies the pattern to ensure nothing is missed. As the pattern is flown, sonobuoys are automatically launched. Much of the manual work required on the P-3C is taken out of the process on the P-8A, which gives the crew more time to focus on the tactical picture. A P-3C can carry 84 sonobuoys and passively process 32 at a time; a P-8A can carry 129 and passively process 64 at a time.

Summing up the P-8A in the tactical ASW role, Lt Cdr Nuse described the aircraft as a game changer from the technology stand point.

Aerial Refuelling Test Campaign

Last spring VX-20 deployed a P-8A and a flight-test crew to Edwards Air Force Base, California to qualify the aircraft’s aerial refuelling system, a receptacle for the flying boom system used by US Air Force tankers. The P-8A’s receptacle is housed in the raised dome fitted above the flight deck. The aerial refuelling system and all the plumbing is fitted on the production line: a good example of forward fitting discussed earlier.

AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE

At a ceremony held in Washington DC on May 21, 2015, the then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter presented the 2014 David Packard Excellence in Acquisition and Should Cost and Innovation Award to PMA-290, the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft program office.

According to a NAVAIR press release, in 2014, PMA-290’s efforts saved $5.2 billion across the P-8A Poseidon system development and demonstration, production and industrial support and sustainment phases.

PMA-290’s cost-saving effort was multifaceted. Its ability to reduce production time and overall cost is down to the fact that the P-8A is the first Navy aircraft to be built from the start on a commercial production line. Each P-8A aircraft is built on a Boeing 737 production line, leveraging efficient commercial practices to reduce production time and therefore cost. Early in the production process, Boeing Commercial Airplanes integrates systems unique to the P-8A, such as hydraulics, wiring and aircraft structures, eliminating the need for costly rework during final mission systems installation by Boeing Defense Systems.

img_64-1_75.jpg
Patrol Squadron 30 (VP-30) ‘Pro’s Nest’ based at Jacksonville is the P-8A Poseidon Fleet Replacement Squadron. Dan Stijovich

Capt Rossi said despite having an aerial refuelling capability, the P-8A has very good range and endurance without it, and is not necessary to meet baseline mission requirements, but when used, enables the aircraft to remain on station for longer. At least three P-8As were deployed to Australia in March 2014 during the extensive search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and became the aircraft of choice in the search operations because of its ability to stay on station in the search area for longer, a situation made possible because its transit time to the search area was quicker than other aircraft.

The P-8A aerial refuelling system is essentially designed to be automatic. Lt Cdr Nuse said: “We have a power button, maintain manual control of the valves for a couple of fuel tanks, and open the URC receptacle door, otherwise it’s essentially automated. During aerial refuelling we get into contact and take-on fuel”

Prior to deploying a T-bird to Edwards for the aerial refuelling trials, VX-20 called upon squadron E-6B Mercury test pilots with aerial refuelling experience to help train their colleagues on P-8A. This was accomplished using the E-6B full-motion simulator at Tinker Air Force Base, home to the Navy’s Mercury fleet.

In addition to simulator training, the Edwards-based 418th Flight Test Squadron flew VX-20’s P-8A test pilots on its receiverequipped KC-135 named Speckled Trout, followed by more KC-135 training with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing based at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.

Such was the realism and fidelity of the simulator and KC-135 training provided to VX-20’s pilots, by the start of the flight test campaign they felt comfortable with aerial refuelling in the KC-135, which made transition to P-8A flight test much simpler. P-8A aerial refuelling flight testing included flying qualities, fuel compatibility, loads, noise and vibration, and simulator data collection testing. As per the joint US Air Force, US Navy test plan, VX-20, the 418th FLTS and Boeing test pilots initially undertook plenty of flying quality manoeuvres before the first contact. P-8A test crew stepped up the test points by increments of altitude, airspeed, dry, wet and the rate of fuel transfer.

The first flight lasted approximately threeand- a-half hours, gradually building-up to the first of a number of contacts in the last 30 minutes of the sortie. During 19 flights and 107 hours of flight time, VX-20 pilots made over 500 contacts and transferred hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel.

Further aerial refuelling tests will be conducted to clear the P-8A with other types of tanker; the Air Force clears specific combinations of receiver and tanker aircraft at a time.

img_64-2_45.jpg
Patrol Squadron 8 (VP-8A) ‘Fighting Tigers’ is one of five front line P-8A Poseidon squadrons assigned to Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11 (CPRW-11) based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. Kevin Whitehead

Interestingly, all RAF P-8As will be delivered with the air refuelling receptacle and plumbing installed. That’s not much use to the RAF aircraft, because the UK’s tanker fleet is comprised solely of hose and drogue-equipped Voyager tankers. While the Voyager is proving to be an effective tanker in service with the RAF, its incompatibility with the P-8A poses a problem. AIR International contacted the UK P-8A Integrated Project Team based at Abbeywood near Bristol to determine the intent for operations requiring aerial refuelling of an RAF P-8A aircraft. The IPT was kind enough to respond, saying: “The P-8A Poseidon is capable of operating over significant range and will be able to meet the requirements for the core UK missions for which it is being procured, without the need for aerial refuelling. In exceptional circumstances, for example, to meet extended range missions, the UK will draw on the aerial refuelling capability of our allies.”

That’s a plausible answer, but one that begs the question of why the Nimrod MR2, the UK’s previous maritime patroller, had an aerial refuelling capability that was called upon many a time, not to mention the concept of operations by US Navy and RAAF P-8As. One can only hope the UK’s allies will always be to hand with a tanker when an RAF P-8A needs gas during an extended range mission.

DOT&E

An assessment of the P-8A’s ongoing operational test and evaluation (OT&E) given in the FY2016 Annual Report by the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation made the following points.

The P-8A ECP 2 OT&E, the most extensive P-8A operational test conducted since IOT&E in 2012, is evaluating new capabilities including wide-area ASW search with the MAC Phase I sensor system, air-to-air refuelling, additional employment modes for the AGM-84 Harpoon missile, and a complete reevaluation of P-8A’s imagery and signals intelligence collection capabilities.

Because NAVAIR did not complete the development of the MAC capability or MAC tactics for wide-area active ASW search in deep or convergence zone acoustic environments; ECP 2 OT&E will only evaluate improvements to the MAC Phase I system in shallow and littoral environments. Thus, for the time being the P-8A will not have the full wide-area acoustic ASW capability as required by the baseline Capability Development Document.

During FY2016, NAVAIR continued testing of ECP 2 to evaluate improvements to the P-8A’s acoustic and MAC software and employment tactics in representative littoral shallow-water environments. NAVAIR is developing tactics and system improvements to use the MAC system in deeper water environments. To improve and expand the ECP 2 ASW capability, NAVAIR is testing a higher source-level active buoy combined with new tactics and improvements to MAC software. Once the new MAC source buoy is complete and fielded, a re-evaluation of the MAC capability will be required.

Because of evolving capability requirements, potential budget reductions, and schedule uncertainties NAVAIR delayed development of a comprehensive test strategy and schedule for what was formerly called Increment 3 configuration, which is now split into four engineering change proposals ECP 4, ECP 5, ECP 6 and ECP 7.

In April 2016, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics approved a revised P-8A acquisition strategy that incorporated all of the Increment 3 capability requirements into the baseline P-8A programme. All capabilities are now being developed and delivered as a series of engineering change proposals ECP 4,

ECP 5, ECP 6 and ECP 7. The proposals include implementation of open system architecture changes, ASW capability enhancements, communication system upgrades, radar and electronic signal sensor upgrades, and integration of the network-capable AGM-84 Harpoon II+ anti-ship missile.

NAVAIR is currently working to develop a revised P-8A test evaluation master plan to define developmental and operational test strategy for the new series of ECPs.

Fifty and Growing

On January 5, 2017, the US Navy accepted its 50th P-8A Poseidon at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Commenting on the programme at the time of the 50th delivery, Capt Rossi said: “This is the first time a Navy combat aircraft is being built from the ground up on a commercial production line. We’ve leveraged commercial expertise and experience and a highly reliable airframe, the 737, which has reduced production time and overall production costs.”

Since the initial contract award, the P-8A programme has reduced costs by more than 30% and has saved the US Navy more than $2.1 billion.

All six patrol squadrons and one fleet replacement squadron operating the P-8A at Naval Air Station Jacksonville had completed fleet transition training from the P-3C to the P-8A by the April 2016. By May 2017, the first west coast P-8A squadron, VP-4, had relocated its home port from Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington and completed its transition. All US Navy patrol squadrons are due to complete transition training by FY2019.

As of the end of April, Boeing had delivered 53 P-8As to the US Navy, and three to the Royal Australian Air Force.

On April 8, Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45) ‘Pelicans’ returned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville after a seven-month tour to the 6th Fleet area of operations (AOO), completing an historic first P-8A squadron deployment to the European theatre. In an announcement, the US Navy said the deployment involved seven aircraft and 274 personnel operating from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. The squadron undertook 24 detachments throughout Europe, from Iceland to Malta, and provided support to the USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, and three carrier strike groups; the French Navy Charles De Gaulle, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77).

Patrol Squadron 45 amassed 3,700 hours of flight time, completed 8,700 maintenance actions requiring almost 33,000 maintenance man-hours, during its European deployment.