The P-8 Poseidon is quickly becoming the Pentagon’s super-adaptable multi-role surveillance platform of choice. We know it can pack one of the most advanced radar systems in the world, slung under its belly in a huge canoe-like enclosure. Now, another previously unknown external ‘plug and play’ capability for the P-8 appears to be in testing.
This new pod was photographed during a P-8 test flight out of Boeing Field in Seattle by aviation photographer Josh Kaiser. As you can see, it is made up of an antenna farm and housing that can be attached and detached from the P-8’s forward underbelly.
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It is unclear what this pod’s exact purpose is, but it is worth a guess (we have reached out to Boeing but are still awaiting a response). It could very well be a modular communications intelligence gathering package that will allow the P-8 to pick up some of the slack for the USAF’s RC-135 and U-2 (in Senior Spear configuration) fleets, as well as the Navy’s own secretive EP-3 Aries cadre among other smaller platforms. Such a capability will allow the P-8 to eavesdrop on potential foes communications in a way in which linguists can translate those intercepts in real-time or in near real-time. Using satellite communications, there is a possibility that those linguists may not be on the jet at all, and could even be halfway around the globe.
Another possibility is that this system is the P-8’s version of a “network gateway” system that will give it similar bolt-on capabilities as other aircraft equipped with Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) suites. BACN is flying on the EQ-4, E-11A and NASA’s WB-57s, even the KC-135 can deploy simpler and less capable ‘roll-on, roll-off’ unit that accomplishes some of BACN’s basic mission. BACN is one of America’s most powerful force multipliers. It creates an active net over the entire battlefield, far over the horizon, and even at ground level. It also allows different weapon systems that carry various types of data-links, which transmit on their own waveform, to have their situational awareness “pictures” fused into one single common shared picture of battlespace. This single, fused picture is then rebroadcast by BACN on all those same waveforms.
BACN can also facilitate satellite communications, even between units on the ground and command and control centers halfway around the globe. Think of it as a universal translator, data-fusion center and broadcasting facilitator that flies high up in the sky. You can read more about BACN here and in relation to the F-22 Raptor here.
Whatever this new pod is or is not, it’s just another example of how adaptable a modern maritime patrol aircraft can be, although it does bring up the question of how crews can be trained to accomplish so many missions with limited flight time.
Performing the majority of the permissive airspace rainbow of reconnaissance missions and having to be well versed in chasing enemy submarines, monitoring sea traffic and attacking ships seems like a lot to put on one crew. In addition, the P-8 may find itself loitering high over the dry battlefield collecting intelligence and providing close air support one day in the future. Hopefully the Navy will provide separate “back-end” crews for these more exotic missions so that maritime patrol crews don’t become so overwhelmed with so many missions that their proficiency in any one of them drops well below optimal.
The P-8 is turning into a very useful tool, one that has just begun its career at that. It has made constant news, from going where others couldn’t in the search for MH370, to challenging the Chinese and their ambiguous air space restrictions. But we have to remember, it is replacing America’s sub-hunting and sea control staple, the P-3 Orion, not augmenting it. Considering the threat from enemy submarines is only growing, as well as the complexity of maritime military affairs abroad, we can’t take our eye off the basic mission set that the aircraft was originally bought for.
The truth of the matter is, you can have the most flexible aerial asset of all time, able to do highly different missions on a whim, but it can only be in one place at a time, and that is usually sitting on the ground. As such, force structure needs to expanded to accomplish all these missions with a common platform, or something will have to give, and that something will be the P-8 community’s bread and butter missions of sea control, anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare.
Regardless of these issues, it is still awesome to wonder what Boeing and the Navy will bolt onto the their beloved weaponized 737 next.
Make sure to check out more of Josh’s awesome pictures at his flickr portfolio here.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.