War Eagles Take Reins of Poseidon
By Lt. Christi E. Morrissey
The P-8A Poseidon program achieved initial operational capability 29 November 2013, launching the inaugural P-8A squadron deployment.
That day, two of six P-8A Poseidon aircraft assigned to the VP-16 War Eagles departed NAS Jacksonville, Fla., and arrived at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, 1 December. The four additional aircraft arrived a few days later. The U.S. Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance community last witnessed a milestone of this caliber in October 1962, when the VP-8 Fighting Tigers first deployed with the P-3A Orion.
“The decision to send the Poseidon on its maiden deployment to the 7th Fleet area of operations signifies the U.S. Navy’s commitment to maintain a continued presence of its most capable assets in the Western Pacific, bolstering the United States’ rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” said Cmdr. William C. Pennington, Jr., VP-16’s commanding officer during the deployment.
In Okinawa, VP-16 participated in missions and exercises ranging from search and rescue efforts for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 to traditional theater anti-submarine warfare (ASW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) exercises with regional allies. The War Eagles maintenance team and air crew tirelessly worked to keep the squadron’s aircraft flying and maintained operational readiness throughout the Western Pacific.
According to Cmdr. Daniel Papp, VP-16’s current commanding officer and executive officer during the deployment, the aircraft’s Pacific operations proved that the P-8A is ideal for such a vast operational area. The Poseidon’s range and speed allows crews to patrol large expanses of ocean that would take surface vessels days to reach.
“When it came to operating away from home for long periods of time, we started out more conservatively, sending small detachments to NAF Atsugi, Japan,” said Lt. Cmdr. Erik Thomas, a VP-16 naval flight officer and the squadron operations officer during the deployment. “This permitted us to test our procedures working in a detachment environment, launching flights and executing tasking without the aid of home base.”
Building on its success and capabilities, VP-16 quickly transitioned to operating at full speed.
“At one point, we had only a single aircraft on the ramp here in Okinawa because all of our other aircraft were participating in exercises and missions in other countries,” said Thomas. “During one of our busiest days, we flew 66 flight hours. For a squadron with only six aircraft, that’s unheard of.”
Snapdragon exercises took place from 30 December 2013 to 1 January 2014 in the Philippine Sea and offered a joint training opportunity between maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA) and U.S. submarine forces.
“We’ve been maintaining planes airborne around the clock for the last few days,” said Lt. Timothy Bierbach, a senior tactical coordinator (TACCO) and VP-16’s maritime weapons and tactics instructor. “With half of our aircraft currently on detachment to other countries for exercises and other missions, this has been a test of the P-8A and VP-16’s ability to maintain flight operations with limited assets. The P-8A is a transformational ASW aircraft and has reached or exceeded our current expectations in all mission sets.”
During the exercise, Lt. j.g. Joel Gillquist, a naval flight officer and co-TACCO, examined his screen using the Poseidon’s 21st century battle space management capabilities and notified the TACCO, Lt. John Bailey, that their relief was off deck early. The TACCOs coordinated with the other aircraft and provided their relief with increased situational awareness.
“Network integration has given us a superior ability to conduct command and control, and pass mission critical information,” said Gillquist. “We are able to use systems such as Link-11, Link-16 and international marine/maritime satellite communication systems (INMARSAT) to coordinate with U.S. and international partners and allies. The ability to share information and data off the aircraft increases our operational effectiveness and allows our commanders to make better informed decisions.”
The Poseidon crew tracked its target for several hours during the exercise, adjusting their tactics to the submarine’s changes in course and speed. Minute shifts in the sub’s frequencies were quickly picked up by the P-8A’s sensors and recognized by crew members.
“The Poseidon’s Maritime Acoustic Suite is significantly more interactive than the legacy systems we had in the P-3C,” said AWO2 Aaron Deremiah. “We are able to manipulate our system to exploit the acoustic returns, allowing us to detect a wider range of frequencies than the Orion could.”
“The P-8A was designed to detect and track any subsurface target in the world, and it does that very effectively,” said Deremiah. “In addition, the flexibility of the mission crew workstations allows us to become more tactically involved in missions other than ASW.”
The aircraft’s local area network enables the crew to access all systems and sensors to exploit the full capacity of the air crew and aircraft, and ultimately find the moving target.
“From my station, I can use INMARSAT, make radio calls and even insert a buoy pattern, if needed,” said Deremiah. “Workload sharing has enabled the acoustic operator to play a more active role on the squadron’s flights, helping prevent task saturation of the TACCO and electronic warfare operators (EWO) on ISR and ASuW missions.”
AWOCS Patrick Biddinger, a senior EWO in the squadron and the original EWO fleet NATOPS evaluator on the Poseidon, agreed with Deremiah.
“There is more fluidity between the sensor operators than there ever was in the P-3C,” he said. “While we still have our areas of expertise, you are starting to see operators use and experiment with the capabilities of the other sensors allowing them to step outside of their traditional roles.”
During this exercise, air and submarine crews practiced ASW tactics. For P-8 air crews, the exercise provided training and flight hours for certification.
The P-8A carries sonobuoys and is armed with MK-54 torpedoes and the AGM-84D Harpoon anti-surface missile. Combined with state-of-the-art sensor suites and a flexible crew layout, the Poseidon is the most advanced maritime patrol aircraft in the world. The flight deck is nearly identical to a commercial 737 Next Generation, with 87 percent of the panels and switches matching those found in its cousin aircraft. Only a few added panels hint at the plane’s military capabilities.
“The increased situational awareness the Poseidon brings to the flight station compared to the P-3C is night and day,” said Lt. Shawn Khan, a P-8A patrol plane commander and former P-3C pilot. “In the P-3, we only had [a tactical air navigation system] and radio communications to coordinate altitude swaps with our relief aircraft.”
Khan also noted that increased automation, including autopilot and auto throttle features, decreases the manual workload on the aircraft’s pilots, so they are able to pay more attention to the tactical situation. In poor weather, the heads-up display for the pilot in the left seat allows a smooth transition from instrument to visual flying.
Although the Poseidon has fewer windows than a commercial 737, two large observer windows situated toward the front of the aircraft allow crew members to conduct visual searches and monitor for conflicting air traffic.
The heart of “the tube” consists of five interchangeable mission crew workstations, arranged along a rail, allowing for any combination of seating arrangements.
“These arrangements enable the TACCO to maximize efficiency and take advantage of previously unrecognized capacity,” said Bierbach. “This capability has exponentially increased our crew resource management and productivity.”
The acoustic sensors consist of the Maritime Acoustic System Processor and Maritime Acoustic System Data Recorder, which enables operators to analyze up to 64 sonobuoys at a time: twice the capacity of the P-3C. The P-8A uses a sonobuoy positioning system, which provides a more accurate geo-location of buoy patterns and reduces the need to constantly mark on top of deployed sonobuoys.
“The P-3 is a reliable and capable aircraft that has proven itself over the years, but the P-8 is a game changer, allowing operators to collect and process greater amounts of tactical data,” said Biddinger.
Perhaps the greatest change for the aircraft’s EWO has been the addition of the ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system. According to Biddinger, the new ESM system enables operators to manipulate portions of the frequency spectrum they are examining, letting them tailor searches based on their operating area. The system is also able to automatically geo-locate a target, reducing the need to manually fix a track, and gives both the TACCO and flight station greater control over the aircraft’s flight path.
The War Eagles spent more than nine hours a day in March joining the search and rescue effort for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
“VP-16 contributed two aircraft for daily flights in the search and rotated crews through Australia for several weeks,” said Lt. j.g. Kyle Atakturk, a VP-16 pilot who was part of the first crew to respond. “It was an emotional mission. Our air crew and aircraft went out nearly every day, flying in both inclement weather and optimum conditions, to cover huge expanses of the ocean. We just wanted to help bring closure to the families of the missing.”
The War Eagles also brought the P-8A to South Korea in March for Exercise Foal Eagle, designed to enhance South Korea’s security and readiness. VP-16 supported U.S. Marines on the ground through ISR missions and executed ASW targets. The Poseidon’s performance exceeded expectations by providing a superior ISR product to the Marines and the South Korean naval assets.
“VP-16 has been investigating ways to collaborate with our sister services in a joint environment,” said Lt. Michael Glynn, a P-8A instructor pilot and P-3C aircraft commander. “As the U.S. supports the rebalance to the Pacific, we’re focusing on projecting power in an area with anti-access and area denial systems. To operate effectively, you need to seamlessly link sensor platforms like the P-8A with commanders and shooters. We are just now tapping into some of the capabilities in the systems aboard the Poseidon.”
During a seven-month deployment, the War Eagles completed maritime strike exercises with U.S. aircraft including: Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers, U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry, F-15 Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors. Glynn noted these types of joint exercises, practicing and simulating high-end tactics, techniques and procedures with U.S allies, let the forces learn together and improve interoperability.
“Those missions are the bread and butter of the MPRA community,” said Pennington. “During my time in command, I challenged our Sailors to become the most proficient ASW squadron in the Navy, asking them to embody our motto: ‘Anytime, Anywhere, Any Task … Nothing but Excellence.’ I can proudly say that our Sailors and air crew stepped up to the plate and exceeded all expectations.”
Lt. Morrissey is a VP-16 pilot and the squadron’s public affairs officer. A Harvard graduate, she was a member of the first class of CAT I students to train on the P-8A. LaToya T. Graddy, the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircrafat program office (PMA-290) public affairs officer, contributed to this article.