Later deliveries of Boeing’s P-8A POSEIDON maritime patrol aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) could have an additional workstation to increase capability.
The RAAF has seven aircraft in-service so far and according to Captain John Grime, Commanding Officer of 92 Wing the maritime patrol wing of the RAAF, the first eight aircraft delivered have five workstations on the tactical rail, with aircraft 9-12 expected to have six. Aircraft 1-8 are expected to be retrofitted with a sixth workstation at a later date, he added.
The tactical rail contains the operations stations for the P-8A where there are two junior officers: a Tactical Coordinator (TACO) and Co-Tactical Coordinator (COTAC). The other crew include two acoustics operators and a radar and electronic support measures officer. Capt Grime said that the sixth workstation is to assist operating the existing equipment and can then be employed to operate new sensor or capabilities when it is added.
Capt Grime told MONCh at the Avalon Air Show 2019 that the big advance in operating the P-8A over the P-3C ORION, which is replaces is, “how much information comes in and goes off the aircraft, both to other platforms – we work a lot with the Royal Australian Navy [RAN] and other coalition navies talking to their ships and helicopters – the information that comes out is not too much, but it needs to have someone to manage it.”
The COTAC manages the information into and out of the aircraft with the TACO running the fighting operations. The data is transferred via VHF, UHF, HF, and SATCOM links. “The connectivity and information we get is not just slightly better than the P-3C, it is an absolute step change to how we operate,” Capt Grime said.
“Anti-submarine warfare is extremely complex, which is why it requires six people to do it. This aircraft is built for ASW, it is not a converted 737, it is an ASW platform,” Capt Grimes added. In the P-8A the TACO can drop 30 sonobuoys (10 from each of the three pressurised launchers) without the need to reload.
New capabilities will be added to the P-8A in Increment 3 of the aircraft to be delivered in the mid-2020s that Capt Grime could not elaborate on due to classification issues but it would require a sixth workstation to operate.
“The RAAF is in a cooperative programme with the US that we have to pay for but it gives us influence and we wanted the sixth station and the sixth crew member to sit in there,” he said. “That is an Australian initiative. Initially it will give us the ability to have more people operating the same sensors but there will be an increased number of sensors.”
The USN will get the same new capabilities under Increment 3 but it is not clear if the USN will have six workstations in their aircraft like the RAAF plans. Whilst the first aircraft was delivered in November 2016 the eighth aircraft for the RAAF is due for delivery this year with the last four expected to be handed over by March 2020. A further three aircraft could be ordered to take the fleet to 15 by the mid-2020s. Under 92 Wing, the P-8As are operated by 11 Squadron out of RAAF Edinburgh and the total cost of the Poseidon acquisition programme AIR7000 phase 2B is A$5.4 billion.
Meanwhile the RAAF’s P-8As achieved their Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in January-March 2018, have completed a firing of the ATM-84J HARPOON missile on the US Pacific Missile Test Range facility off Hawaii in July 2018 during the RIMPAC 18 exercise and RAAF base facilities are being upgraded to support the aircraft.
Capt Grime said that Full Operational Capability (FOC) is expected in 2021 with a full complement of aircraft, crew and spares. “The next 12-15 months there is going to be a huge move towards FOC... The hardest thing is learning how to use [P-8A] whilst training the new crews coming through the system.”
Under 92 Wing, 292 Sqn trains the pilots, aircrew, maritime patrol reconnaissance officers, analysts and ground crew. Simulators in 292 replicate the aircraft with a 737 fuselage and wing to practise faults on and a whole engine to complete servicing on.
Capt Grime said the P-8A has the best front-end and back-end simulator systems that he has seen. P-8A POSEIDON training and simulator was handed over in August 2018 as part of a A$470 million facility that will deliver 39 different training courses. The first Australian-based course has been completed with the second underway. Previous training was done at Jacksonville in the US.
“Most of the high-end training is done in the simulator not so much in the aircraft. It is about 70:30 time split but it is about how we do it in terms of what we do in the simulator,” Capt Grime explained. It means that more of his aircraft are out on task not doing training because full conversion training for aircrew is now about 13-14 sorties and the back-end crew used to do the same but now do five sorties. A total of 12 crews are expected to operate all aircraft.