As the US grapples with a growing decline in the capability of its ageing bomber force ahead of the introduction of the B-21 Raider, the US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has been quietly redoubling efforts to enhance the strike capability of the P-8A Poseidon platform, with potential opportunities for Australia to fill its long-range strike gap in a cost-effective, timely manner.
Long-range strike has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds and capability gaps for both the US and its allies, particularly in the Indo-Pacific as they grapple with the realities of overcoming or in some cases out manoeuvring increasingly complex and deadly integrated air defence systems and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems.
While much of the current US Air Force bomber fleet, made up of the Cold War-era B-52H Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit stealth bombers enjoyed great success during the two decades immediately following the end of the Cold War, being employed to great effect against extremist organisations and low order nation state adversaries, the new strategic challenges have meant the US and its allies need to think outside of the box to provide a distributed, cost effective and survivable long-range strike platform.
In response, the US Navy's Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has moved to redouble efforts to provide US decision makers with a cost effective platform capable of supporting the navy and deployed ground forces whether they are Marines or Army units with reliable, survivable and networked precision strike capabilities.
At the forefront of this push is the US Navy's push to up-arm the Boeing-designed and built P-8A Poseidon platform, originally conceived of as a next-generation anti-submarine warfare, maritime patrol and maritime search and rescue platform to replace the fleet of ageing Lockheed-produced P-3 Orion series aircraft.
Earlier this year, NAVAIR requested a solicitation for information from industry to "determine potential contractors who have the skills, experience, qualifications, and knowledge required to perform aeromechanical and software integration of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) onto the P-8A aircraft". While that in and of itself might seem fairly innocuous, it was the following that shed light on the thinking behind expanding the long-range strike capabilities of the Poseidon.
The NAVAIR solicitation also included a request for industry to provide feedback on the integration of a range of additional weapons systems into the Poseidon platform, including, "500-pound (226-kilogram) to 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) class of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) variants, Mk62/63/65 mines, Small Diameter Bomb (SDB-II), Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD), Bomb Rack Unit BRU-55, and Universal Armament Interface (UAI). Engineering tasks for this effort includes, but are not limited to upgrades to the Boeing Tactical Open Mission Systems (TOMS) and Stores Management Computer (SMC) software and interfaces, test planning, execution, data reduction, and reporting on flight test efforts".
Interestingly, shortly after the original NAVAIR solicitation for information, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved the $1.47 billion acquisition of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) for the Royal Australian Air Force as part of a larger push, further outlined by the Prime Minister during the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan which have seen a growing push to expand the nation's long-range strike capabilities.
LRASM is a long range, precision-guided anti-ship missile leveraging off its Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) heritage and is designed to meet the needs of US Navy and Air Force warfighters.
Australia intends to use the missile on its fleet of F-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft, with the DSCA identifying: “The proposed sale of the missiles and support will increase the Australian Navy’s maritime partnership potential and align its capabilities with existing regional baselines. This is Australia’s first purchase of the missiles. Australia will not have any difficulty absorbing these weapons into its armed forces.”
This push is part of important adjustments to defence policy are set out in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update to respond to the rapid changes in the strategic environment. The Strategic Update replaces the Strategic Defence Framework set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper with three new strategic objectives:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- To deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- To respond with credible military force, when required.
The US solicitation identifies a major sense of urgency behind the proposal, with the US expecting the contracting period to exist from January 2021 through January 2026 – meaning the US Navy's fleet of P-8A Poseidon's will field an increasingly potent array of strike capabilities.
The LRASM platform will play a significant role in ensuring military access to operate in open ocean/blue waters, owing to its enhanced ability to discriminate and conduct tactical engagements from extended ranges.
The air-launched variant provides an early operational capability for the US Navy’s offensive anti-surface warfare Increment I requirement. With the recent EOC declaration by the US Air Force for the B-1B, the focus is now on the US Navy’s F-18E/F Super Hornet in 2019.
Australia’s interest in the LRASM platform will focus on the integration of the platform with the RAAF’s F-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter fleets to enhance the stand-off, deterrence and strike capabilities of the platforms. The LRASM platform is also configurable and compatible with the Navy’s Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) launcher, currently in service on board the Hobart Class guided-missile destroyers, Anzac Class frigates and is expected to form the basis of the Hunter Class guided-missile frigates’ VLS capacity.
The US Navy's push to develop and enhance the strike capability of the P-8A platform provides an interesting avenue for enhancing the stand-off and long range strike capabilities of the Royal Australian Air Force's existing fleet of P-8A Poseidon aircraft in a cost effective, timely and collaborative manner, enhancing the interoperability and capability aggregation of the P-8A Poseidon fleet operated in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia's first aircraft arrived in Canberra on 16 November 2016, and the remaining 11 will be delivered by March 2023. Initial operational capability of the first eight P-8A aircraft is scheduled for 2017-2020.
The P-8A Poseidon has advanced sensors and mission systems, including a state-of-the-art multi-role radar, high definition cameras, and an acoustic system with four times the processing capacity of the AP-3C Orions. The P-8A is built specifically as a military aircraft. It is based on the proven commercial designs of Boeing's 737-800 fuselage, but has been substantially modified to include:
- A weapons bay;
- Under wing and under fuselage hard points for weapons, and
- Increased strengthening for low level (down to 200 feet) operations and high angle turns.
The P-8A aircraft has an extensive communications system including radios and data links across VHF, UHF, HF and SATCOM.
An internal fuel capacity of almost 34 tonnes allows the P-8A to conduct low level anti-submarine warfare missions at a distance of greater than 2,000 kilometres from base. The P-8A has recently completed certification making it compatible for air-to-air refuelling with the KC-30A MRTT.