Last month, the RAAF received its eighth P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol and Response Aircraft (MPRA).
The replacement for the Orion (the AP-3C variant of which entered service in 2002), 12 of these aircraft are to be delivered to the RAAF by 2021, providing the capability to conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Search and Rescue (SAR) missions.
To gain an understanding into how the RAAF will operate the aircraft and prepare its people (both air and ground crew), to the author visited RAAF Edinburgh, the home base for Number 92 Wing, located in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. A tour of the Wing’s new state-of-the-art training facilities and time with the Officer Commanding Number 92 Wing, Group Captain John Grime gave ADM an insight into the work being done by the Wing.
GPCAPT Grime was keen to emphasise the step-change in capabilities presented by the P-8A. While Poseidon has a suite of sensors – acoustic, electro-optic (EO), electronic support measures (ESM) – and a system to manage these, each is an improvement on their equivalent, which was on the Orion.
According to GPCAPT Grime, “the information they can get to enable them to do their mission is an order of magnitude change with the P-8. The way it’s connected, both to tasking agencies and to other platforms that are working for, maybe, the same tasking agency, is a revelation.”
The access to significantly more, real-time information than had been the case with the Orion, has contributed to a change in the makeup of the crew of the new MPRA. Whereas in the AP-3C there was a Tactical Coordinator (TACCO) and a Navigator/Communicator (NAVCOM), in the P-8A there is a TACCO and a COTAC (Co-Tactical Coordinator), where the role of the COTAC can be largely to perform the role of an information manager who can deal with the various information coming onto the aircraft in order to assist the TACCO.
GPCAPT Grime said that, “how that (information) is managed leads to how the TACCO employs his or her sensors and how they fight the aircraft.”
The way that information collected by Poseidon is distributed from the aircraft, to various elements of the ADF, Government, and Allied militaries, is also different than in the past. To do this properly, 92 Wing is acquiring three Tactical Operations Centres (TOCs), one of which is to be installed permanently at RAAF Edinburgh while the other two are to be Mobile TOCs (MTOCs) that can be deployed with a Poseidon and its crew.
Without a collocated TOC, the information collected by a deployed Poseidon will not be able to fully follow the Production-Exploitation-Dissemination (PED) process to meet the requirements of the mission’s customer(s), some of whom can be at the highest levels of Defence and Government.
GPCAPT Grime also stated that RAAF will be acquiring a smaller-scale type of TOC, called a Media Fly Away Kit (FAK), at the end of 2019, and that there are changes being made to the structure of 92 Wing to better enable the organisation to do PED in order to fulfil its mission requirements.
The TOC is also an important part of the crew’s pre-mission preparation, with the TOC being able to reach-back to acquire information necessary to conduct the mission, such as preparing the Poseidon’s sensors and Tactical Open Mission System (TOMS).
With only two MTOCs, there will likely be instances where 92 Wing will need to examine competing priorities when determining which deployed aircraft receive this support. 92 Wing is also working with the U.S. Navy (USN) in figuring out how to best deploy and setup MTOCs, as GPCAPT Grime is hopeful that eventually RAAF and USN MTOCs will be interoperable.
The increase in information available for the mission, being collected by the mission, and being disseminated during and after the mission, for both Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton (due to enter RAAF service in 2023) is, according to GPCAPT Grime, likely to bring the need for RAAF to have people who are adept at handling information in a way that is different to RAAF recruits of the past.
“I need people that are qualified in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), that understand information and how to apply it,” GPCAPT Grime stated. “As an organisation we have actively recruited people that think in a fifth-gen way already; and so we need to exploit that.”
Air Force, along with 92 Wing, is in the process of determining the personnel numbers required and what are the necessary skill sets, including how people can cross between the different aircraft; supporting the range of capabilities.
The arrival of the MQ-4C (and eventually the Reaper) will also change the way some 92 Wing crews conduct operations overseas.
“Triton crews may not operate in austere, adverse environments,” GPCAPT Grime said. “They’ll sit in a building very much like this one with a bunch of laptop screens that people will operate and fly the aircraft. And they will go home to their families. But they’ve just been, essentially, on-task, in the most difficult of cases, in a conflict zone.”
Given this unique and emerging Service circumstance, RAAF is now considering how these types of engagement scenarios are to be to managed; noting crews conducting missions overseas are not necessarily deployed overseas (in these scenarios), but are essentially ‘all-consumed’ in the mission.
Future increments of the Poseidon are also likely to have a greater ability to disseminate information, which could involve traditional ‘back-end’ crew members doing more processing off-board, on the ground, thus creating crew models that could be different from those currently in place.
Within the buildings that house Number 292 Squadron are RAAF’s simulators for training the Poseidon’s ground and aircrews. A full-scale Poseidon fuselage (which has a room almost to itself), as well as full-scale sub-elements (such as engines and the weapons bay), enables ground crews to learn how to maintain the various parts of the Poseidon with highly realistic replicas. Computer-based simulators also enable ground crews to learn how to deal with a variety of system issues without having to touch an actual aircraft.
Two full-motion cockpit simulators for the aircraft’s pilots enable most introductory training to be conducted off-aircraft, saving time and resources. These can also be used to simulate complex in-flight emergencies, which would be too risky to subject an actual aircraft (and crew) to.
These ‘front-end’ simulators can be virtually connected to one of 292 Squadron’s two ‘back-end’ weapons tactics trainers, which are used to train 92 Wing’s sensor managers and operators. These can provide training in the full range of the Poseidon’s sensors – acoustic, EO, ESM, as well as the TOMS, which is used to manage these. Each year 292 Squadron produces two full Poseidon flight crews who are then posted to 11 Squadron.
By being able to immerse an entire flight crew into any part of a mission, 92 Wing can reduce wear on aircraft, save the time taken for a crew to get from their offices to on-station, and also reduce the need to require other assets, such as RAN ships and
submarines, to be present for certain training. According to GPCAPT Grime, “the scenarios that we can put in, the stress we can put under the crew, is at the stage where, in some senses, it’s better to do a series of simulators than it is to go to some of the lower-scale exercises.”
In the future, 92 Wing’s new simulators will be connected virtually to other simulators across the ADF enabling, for example, a full Poseidon crew to conduct an exercise with some of the crew of a RAN vessel, neither of whom are actually in an aircraft or aboard a ship, but are instead in simulators in different parts of the country. This means that certain training, which could only with the Orion, be conducted as a live-exercise (with the associated movement of actual people and assets), can now instead be conducted virtually and live-exercises can become more focussed on exercising and testing specific capabilities.
92 Wing’s Poseidon’s have already been busy on exercises and operations throughout Australia and internationally. The first Operation GATEWAY with a P-8A flying from Malaysia was conducted in 2017, and more such deployments will take place in 2019 and into the future. The Poseidon is also conducting sorties from bases in northern Australia as part of Operation RESOLUTE.
P-8As have conducted various exercises in the East Australian Exercise Area (EAXA) and West Australian Exercise Area (WAXA) with the RAN as part of the Navy’s fleet exercise program, which has assisted in keeping 92 Wing ‘into ASW’ and maintaining this perishable capability.
In mid-2018, a Poseidon launched an AGM-84 anti-ship missile while on Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaii, in April 2019 a P-8A conducted Exercise Ausindex with the Indian Navy (who also have Poseidon in their inventory), and in mid-2019 an aircraft is to be deployed to RAAF Williamtown (along with an MTOC) to participate in Exercise Talisman Sabre.
The RAAF is expecting to receive the first MQ-4C Triton aircraft in 2023. While the P-8A will provide an aircraft that has a response capability, the MQ-4C has range and persistence, which cannot be matched by Poseidon. 92 Wing sees the P-8A and MQ-4C as a family of systems that can perform maritime ISR and GPCAPT Grime stated that there needs to be some thinking done as to how these two platforms will be used and integrated, as well as figuring out who will be the people using them.
“We’ll use P-3 and P-8 people to seed Triton (and we’re also) analysing at the moment what’s the temporal discipline of how you get someone that arrives off the street and they said ‘I want to be in Air Force and I really like the idea of working with P-8 or Triton’. Recruiting the right people to support these capabilities is a challenge but achievable, and I look forward to seeing the next generation of talented men and women who will no doubt continue to maintain the high standards our crews have set.”
GPCAPT Grime recognises that RAAF is only just starting to exploit the capabilities presented by Poseidon.
“We’re going to have to learn how to operate this aircraft. Both differently in terms of how we employ it, how we disseminate the information and the capability of the aircraft is going to be substantially different in, even five years’ time, and certainly 10 and 15 years’ time from what it is now.”
But the ability to do this will not come from the aircraft alone.
“We are beginning to think in a completely different, holistic way, than we’ve ever done before, because that’s how we need to think because the battle is going to be different.”
This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of ADM.