WASHINGTON: The Navy in November announced it will award Boeing a contract next year to begin work on integrating the service’s premiere anti-ship missile onto the P-8A Poseidon.
By the Navy’s definition, the Poseidon is a multimission aircraft with surveillance capabilities as well as weapon systems. But why equip it with an upgraded, longer-range missile designed for and first put on strike fighters and bombers?
Analysts told Breaking Defense the choice is about the military’s capacity to sustain a fight in the Indo-Pacific and to complicate plans for a peer adversary like China.
“The whole goal here, at the broadest level, is to create problems for Chinese military planners,” said Brad Bowman, a military and political analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “When they contemplate what an assault across the Taiwan Strait looks like … they just see all kinds of ways that we can make their life hard and defeat what they’re trying to do [and] to raise the costs to such a level where they conclude that they cannot accomplish their political objectives with force.”
The P-8A Poseidon, which has ISR, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, will be the third plane to receive the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, a weapon developed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin in response to an urgent operational need from US Pacific Fleet in 2008. The first two aircraft to get it were combat-focused planes: the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Air Force’s B1 bomber.
“When you look at the volume of naval targets that we would confront [in a fight against China], or naval adversary vessels that we would confront, it’s daunting,” Bowman said of the need to equip other aircraft with LRASM.
Multiple analysts told Breaking Defense said it isn’t surprising to see the service upgrading the P-8A’s offensive capabilities, noting both the Poseidon and its predecessor, the P-3 Orion, carry the AGM-84 Harpoon. “It’s a natural extension of maritime patrol community’s previous mission set,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and a vice president of the Telemus Group, said of the upgrade.
Hendrix also brought up concerns about capacity, but focused on the Pentagon’s inventory of P-8s, rather than the missiles they use. “We’re coming back into an era of great power competition with China which is essentially maritime in its character,” he said, adding the Pentagon should consider raising the number of planes in its fleet. The Navy stopped purchasing P-8s for the US fleet in fiscal 2021 with a total inventory of 128, according to military budget justification documents.
But what analysts were less certain about was how a big technical lift the integration may be. Both the Navy and the Air Force experienced hardware and software issues during initial LRASM testing onboard their respective aircraft. Those issues have been highlighted by the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester in recent years.
Chris Bassler, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said increasing the offensive capabilities on a manned ISR aircraft makes sense given that unmanned vehicles are more frequently being tasked with pure surveillance missions.
“Especially as the USN and other militaries move to operational modes where unmanned systems (such as MQ-4C Tritons or MQ-9Bs Sea Guardians) are providing the persistent presence, the P-8 can be a rapid responder when needed, while capable of bringing a diverse set of payloads for operational flexibility, and employ them from longer range,” said Bassler.
While most analysts didn’t see LRASM’s integration onto the P-8A as necessarily unusual, Bowman noted the US military is considering other unorthodox weapon-platform combinations as a means for confusing adversaries.
He referenced an Air Force program, dubbed Rapid Dragon, which is experimenting with dropping missiles attached to pallets out of cargo planes.
With missile upgrade, P-8A Poseidon brings capacity, complexity to China fight: Analysts – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Justin Katz for breakingdefense.com