The US Navy in fact has a validated warfighting requirement of 138 Poseidons to cope with Russian and Chinese naval forces, but it looks likely to stop purchases at 117—far short of that requirement.
The US Navy’s 2021 budget proposal apparently will request no new money to purchase the P-8 Poseidon, the service’s only long-range anti-submarine aircraft, despite a growing undersea threat and a shortfall in aircraft designed to cope with that threat.
The US Navy in fact has a validated warfighting requirement of 138 Poseidons to cope with Russian and Chinese naval forces, but it looks likely to stop purchases at 117—far short of that requirement. Congressional appropriators are asking the Navy how it would replace the aging P-3 Orion sub hunters in two Navy Reserve squadrons—which must retire in the near future—if production of the P-8 is prematurely terminated.
As explained by Forbes’ contributor Loren Thompson, the current Russian undersea fleet is smaller than it was during the Cold War, but its vessels are becoming more capable—more survivable, more lethal—and Moscow is signaling that submarines will remain a priority in its military preparations.
The newer submarines in the Russian fleet are harder to track than legacy vessels, and some are equipped with anti-ship missiles that can hit adversary vessels hundreds of miles away.
Even though China’s undersea fleet is not as capable as Russia’s, is improving rapidly.
Like Russia, China operates a mixed fleet of both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric subs. The nuclear-powered subs, some of which carry long-range ballistic missiles, have much greater range and endurance than conventionally-powered subs. However, the diesel-electric are thought to be quieter, and thus are well-suited to control chokepoints between China’s marginal seas and the broader Pacific.
The geographical circumstances in which the Russian and Chinese navies operate provide ample opportunity for the deployment of P-8 sub hunters within range of their undersea quarry. But 117 Poseidons will not be sufficient to continuously monitor all areas of interest as hostile submarine forces grow more stealthy and more numerous.
Prime contractor Boeing has done a good job of keeping the P-8 on schedule and under budget, leveraging the economies of scale made possible by a global installed base of thousands of 737 commercial transports. The Government Accountability Office has noted the success of the Poseidon’s acquisition strategy, which stressed adapting proven hardware to emerging threats.
The P-8 is an aircraft designed for long-range anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface warfare; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. 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 737-800, the P-8 combines superior performance and reliability with an advanced mission system that ensures maximum interoperability in the future battle space.
Boeing took the 737-800 and adapted it for the US Navy and the Indian Navy. The United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force currently fly the P-8A Poseidon variant; the Indian Navy flies the P-8I variant. Other countries such as Norway and South Korea are signaling interest. Dozens of Cold War maritime patrol aircraft around the world will need to be replaced in the next decade. Whether they are replaced by the P-8, though, will depend on whether the US Navy keeps buying the plane to fill out its warfighting requirement.
However, there’s no mystery about why the Navy hasn’t funded additional Poseidon purchases in future years. It is short of money. Despite a sizable increase in funding from the Trump Administration, the service has little hope of ever getting near the fleet size of 355 warships it says it needs to cover the world.
Photo credit: Boeing