Since the first Orion P-3B touched down in Australia back in April 1968, these aircraft have performed mighty service. Subsequently replaced by P-3Cs and upgraded to AP-3C configuration, the RAAF’s Orions are among the most capable ISR platforms in the world.
Orions have flown far out into the Southern Ocean, listened in on Taliban radio chat over Afghanistan, prowled for pirates off the Horn of Africa and irritated the Chinese in the South China Sea. This capability wasn’t achieved without pain and anguish. Readers of a certain vintage may recall the challenges of the upgrade program.
But what will the new Boeing P-8A Poseidon, now entering service, bring to this job that Orion can’t already do, apart from being newer and faster?
RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies spelled it out in an address to the Navy Sea Power conference last month, first querying how do we get to know what is above, on and below perhaps a 100,000 square mile piece of maritime domain.
Critically, that means being integrated across multiple domains, he said. And he sets the scene with a mission where a P-3 joins up with a surface action group.
The crew receive a joining instructions on the ground before departing, HF voice updates en route plus maybe a HF radio teletype handover message that might provide some ranges or basic indicators or water conditions.
On station, the P-3 communicates with the task group by way of the HF Link-11.
“We can’t transmit or receive any tracks from the S-70B unless there is a voice communication link. In fact no correlated tracks are available at all. Everything has to be verified by voice,” he said.
Any fast jet traffic in the area is on Link-16 but P-3 doesn’t have Link-16.
So on to hunting submarines. The P-3 places up to 32 sonobuoys in the water, all time-shared. But there’s no link of that information to the helicopters – communications with them is all by voice.
But now the Boeing P-8A Poseidon is entering service. The first of 15 aircraft arrived in November 2016, with the rest to be in service by early 2020.
AIRMSHL Davies described a similar type of ASW mission involving a P-8, now with Link-16 and a steady feed of air, surface and sub-surface contacts updated on route from the air warfare destroyers and frigates on station. Intelligence back at RAAF Edinburgh sends analysis of previous missions, including acoustics, screen prints, electro-magnetic spectrum and what the water is doing.
At megabit per second speeds, video can be streamed, along with imagery and intricate sensor data. The common datalink supports multiple channels, which means more tactical application at each station on ships and in the aircraft.
Headquarters at JOC can also see what’s going on, as can any fast jets in the area.
“We know about them, they know about us. We know where the enemy is,” he said.
The P-8 can deploy up to 60 sonobuoys with that many on board again if needed, covering between four and five times the volume of water, with increasing fidelity with every hour that passes.
That combat scenario could add a Wedgetail to manage the air space, a Triton finding out first what is out there, space-based assets and even a Growler controlling the electro-magnetic spectrum.
This all seems far from those days when P-3s flew long overland missions out of the UAE, up through Pakistan and over southern Afghanistan in support of ground troops, watching from on high and listening out for Taliban “Icom chatter” on its sophisticated ESM. Poseidon also has very sophisticated ESM.
Icom of course is the Japanese electronics company. Afghan insurgents used their small UHF handsets, plus plenty of others, for tactical communications, with little thought for signal security as practically anyone could and did listen in.
So what did RAAF P-3 operators hear them say? Without a Pashto translator aboard, they would never know, although it was possible to get a general bearing on the emitter source.
But Australian troops on the ground did have translators and routinely monitored insurgent radio chatter.
Some of this was pretty amusing. Commando Nathan Mullins’ book about his tour in 2009-10 “Keep Your head Down” recounts a patrol through an insurgent-controlled village.
Insurgent 1: “Men you must attack these cowardly dogs as they cross the river.
Insurgent 2: “We are ready. Praise Allah. We will make them pay with blood.”
The patrol passes through the village - not a shot is fired.
Insurgent 1: “What happened. Our men didn’t fire at the Australians.”
Insurgent 2: “What Australians?”
This article first appeared in the November 2017 edition of ADM.