On 24 October 2019, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation held a seminar examining the requirements of #5thgenmanoeuvre. The aim of the seminar, building on previous seminars and series looking at #jointstrike and #highintensitywar, was to examine the differences and potential gaps in how the Australian Defence Force must equip and organise for multi-domain operations. We welcome Melissa Houston to The Central Blue to explore the potential of the P-8A Poseidon in maritime warfare.
What does fifth-generation manoeuvre mean in the context of airborne anti-submarine warfare? Fifth-generation, a term typically applied to fighters, encompasses highly integrated net-enabled systems within a high-performance stealth airframe. The P-8A Poseidon, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) only maritime patrol aircraft, lacks the stealth and manoeuvrability of a fifth-generation fighter but arguably holds fifth-generation ‘systems equivalence’ due to its advanced avionics, sensors and extensive communications suite. The P-8A is designed to engage in underwater warfare, where submarines are the primary threat. In order for the submarine threat to be defeated, however, the P-8A must successfully integrate with the broader Australian Defence Force (ADF). This post will describe the strategic value the Poseidon brings to the ADF, outline the critical roles of the P-8A, and identify some of the critical challenges faced in realising that potential.
The Australian government acknowledges the array of challenges to national security created by a contested maritime environment. The 2016 Defence White Paper sets a requirement to secure Australia’s northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication, while also securing the near region, encompassing maritime South East Asia and the South Pacific. Understanding the P-8A’s value in meeting these requirements require a dive beneath the surface to analyse subsurface strategic value.
A secure Australia depends upon protection from attack or coercion. Submarines play a vital role on both sides of this equation. Uncertainty as to the location and purpose of Australia’s submarines acts as a critical deterrent to a potential adversary. The reverse is true of potential opponents’ submarines. Anti-submarine warfare limits an adversary submarine’s ability to achieve sea denial, conduct intelligence activities, insert land forces or conduct missile strikes. Critically, friendly anti-submarine warfare enhances the effectiveness of friendly submarines by disrupting opposing submarine operations. The maintenance of an effective anti-submarine warfare capability allows the ADF to detect and disrupt a key threat to Australia while enhancing the potency of its undersea deterrent.
The P-8A makes a unique contribution to Australia’s joint anti-submarine warfare capability as the ADF’s only fixed-wing aircraft that can find, fix, track, and attack an underwater target. The P-8A’s speed and range – it can operate over 2000 kilometres from its base – complement the persistence and presence of Australia’s surface and sub-surface anti-submarine capabilities. Range and responsiveness are particularly valuable when considering the reach of the world’s leading submarines.
The P-8A’s ability to operate at range while maintaining real-time communication with various agencies, combined with its sensor and data feeds, makes it an extremely valuable asset. The P-8A acoustics system has four times the processing capability of the recently retired AP-3C Orion. The P-8A can, therefore, provide four times the coverage or four times the security in an anti-submarine warfare search. The use of advanced sensors and processing are critical elements of the P-8A’s fifth-generation potential.
However, the P-8A’s lack of stealth, low speed, and limited defensive systems leave it vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated threats in the maritime domain. The P-8A has demonstrated performance in congested environments but has yet to be employed in contested environments.
Importantly, congestion in 2019 is more than a problem of dense shipping on the ocean’s surface. The P-8A faces emerging challenges in a competitive and cluttered electromagnetic spectrum, resulting in global positioning system interference, radar interference and jamming. As the P-8A’s performance is optimised as part of a highly networked fifth-generation force, disruption in the electromagnetic spectrum has the potential to reduce mission effectiveness significantly. Accordingly, the RAAF must continue to evolve how the P-8A is employed.
There are several challenges facing the P-8A fleet in exploiting its potential. Resolving issues in human factors, technical integration, and command and control will help the ADF realise the Poseidon’s potential.
There is little benefit in P-8A sensors and communications suites integrating with other platforms if operators are not adequately trained to exploit the data being received and know where it must feed. When it comes to fifth-generation manoeuvre, people often get excited by the high-end warfare integration components, sometimes at the expense of basic concepts. Integration is first and foremost about co-operating safely and becoming fifth-generation does not remove the threat of fratricide or accident. Understanding other platform limitations is key to successful (and safe) operations in a congested and contested environment.
We must remain cognizant of the current limitations of our successful integration across ADF platforms. We must continue to develop, test and adjust joint tactics, techniques, and procedures. In an increasingly complex subsurface environment, the safe and successful prosecution P-8A’s missions, especially anti-submarine tasks, must be joint actions.
Improved understanding and integration of joint combat and support systems will enable the development of a joint concept of operations. The age of information means that aircrew is more likely to be overwhelmed with the amount of information they are being fed in real-time by various agencies. This hyper-connectivity can lead to poor prioritisation and breakdowns in situational awareness. The ADF must understand the limitations of our autonomous systems – but also that of our people. Fifth-generation operators must have more discipline and self-awareness than ever before.
A key component of success in fifth-generation manoeuvre is real-time, net-enabled operations. The ADF’s machines must understand one another’s data language for net-enabled operations to be feasible, just as much as the people on board need to understand each other. An example from recent exercise is the requirement for further development of joint procedures across RAAF and Royal Australian Navy elements ensure that datalink messages are transmitted and received as intended. This is paramount in targeting and employing net-enabled weapons. There is no fifth-generation force if the fifth-generation platforms cannot communicate assuredly across the force.
Importantly, with the rise of challenges in the electromagnetic spectrum, ADF systems and people must become adept at operating in analogue or degraded communications modes. Building trust and confidence in systems, in people, and in systems of systems is key to exploiting the Poseidon’s potential.
Finally, with the P-8A’s ability to be re-tasked for any number of missions, command and control is more complicated than ever. Assets can be reassigned in real-time, and aircrew must have a clear understanding of their C2 arrangements, particularly where an asset is dually assigned or where it has separate operational and tactical control arrangements.
The P-8A will absorb the AP-3C’s legacy tasking, stretched across air power roles while integrating seamlessly with civilian agencies in search and rescue roles and ADF and coalition partners across the maritime and land domains. Real-time intelligence updates also mean that the P-8A can act and react in response to the evolving threat environment. Evolution of tasking processes and authorities must evolve to a fifth-generation way of thinking to exploit, rather than limit, the potential of advanced systems.
The P-8A Poseidon brings new potential to the ADF, particularly in its primary underwater warfare role. A fifth-generation maritime patrol aircraft optimises its sensors, communications, and crew as part of an integrated force, and leverages those resources to be more effective and efficient in disrupting adversary submarines and enhancing friendly operations.
Australia’s P-8A fleet has already demonstrated performance in congested environments and gained experience in several operational theatres. P-8A operations, as part of a fifth-generation force, must continue to evolve to achieve the Poseidon’s fifth-generation potential. The ADF must work through challenges in human factors, technical integration, and C2 to unlock Poseidon’s potency.
Squadron Leader Melissa Houston is a P-8A tactical co-ordinator and flight commander in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.