The U.S. Navy says that it is interested in dramatically expanding the arsenal of weapons that its P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft are capable of carrying. The service says that it wants to start by integrating the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, on the planes, but then potentially move on to add various air-launched naval mines, precision-guided bombs, and the Miniature Air Launched Decoy, or MALD, to the available loadout options. There has been a debate within the Navy for years about giving the P-8As the ability to employ more types of munitions and other stores, which could turn these aircraft into arsenal ships of sorts capable of performing missions beyond anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare, and search and rescue, something The War Zone has been following for years now.
On Jan. 28, 2020, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) issued a notice on the Federal government's new central contracting website beta.SAM.gov, asking for contractors to submit information about their capabilities for integrating LRASM and the various other weapons onto the P-8A. LRASM, which is derived from the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) land-attack cruise missile, entered service last year on the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, as well as the U.S. Air Force's B-1B Bone bombers.
"The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), PMA-290 (Program Office for P-8A aircraft), is soliciting information from industry to determine potential contractors who have the skills, experience, qualifications, and knowledge required to perform aeromechanical and software integration of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) onto the P-8A aircraft," the contracting notice reads. There is also "the potential to include, but not limited to, the following additional weapon systems: 500 lb to 2,000 lb class of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) variants, Mk62/63/65 mines, Small Diameter Bomb (SDB-II), Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD), Bomb Rack Unit BRU-55, and Universal Armament Interface (UAI). Engineering tasks for this effort includes, but are not limited to upgrades to the Boeing Tactical Open Mission Systems (TOMS) and Stores Management Computer (SMC) software and interfaces, test planning, execution, data reduction, and reporting on flight test efforts."
At present, the P-8A's armament options consist of the AGM-84D Harpoon anti-ship missile and the Mk 54 air-launched lightweight torpedo. The Navy is also already working on integrating Mk 54s with the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC) kit onto the aircraft, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. HAAWC adds pop-out wings and tail fins to the standard torpedoes, which will allow Poseidon crews to employ them from a standoff range.
The stealthy LRASM, which has been in development since 2014, is an obvious choice to give the P-8As a more capable standoff anti-surface warfare weapon over the aging Harpoon and has been a planned addition to the aircraft's arsenal for some time.
The possible addition of the Mk 62, 63, and 65 naval mines, collectively known as the Quickstrike family, which you can read about in-depth in this past War Zone story, also makes good sense. The Navy has been re-investing heavily in naval mine warfare, including developing new air, surface, and submarine-launched types, as a means of improving its ability to respond to a future large scale and very likely distributed maritime conflict, especially in the Pacific region. There are standoff wing kits now in development for the Mk 62 and Mk 63 mines, which would also enable the Poseidons to emplace maritime minefields from a safer standoff distance. The U.S. Air Force is already actively exploring this concept using its B-52H bombers.
Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB-II), now also known as the GBU-53/B StormBreaker, is a small munition with standoff capabilities and a multi-mode guidance capability, allowing it to engage static or moving targets in any weather and at standoff ranges. A P-8A loaded with GBU-53/Bs would be a powerful tool against swarms of manned or unmanned small boats. The ability of the Poseidons to carry a large number of those munitions in place of larger weapons, combined with the aircraft's range, sensor, and endurance abilities, could enable it to provide a more persistent defense against those types of threats across a broad area. The Navy's largely retired P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft had the ability to engage smaller targets from a distance with AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, a capability that did not get carried over to the P-8A.
The inclusion of Joint Direct Attack Munition-series GPS-guided bombs and the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) are especially interesting because they point to potential future mission sets for the P-8A beyond purely maritime operations. With the exception of Laser JDAM variants, munitions in this family are not capable of engaging moving targets, such as ships or other watercraft sailing on bodies of water. The same standoff wing kit in development now for certain Quickstrike mines was also originally intended to help give JDAMs additional range and could become an additional capability for the P-8As in the future.
StormBreaker also has the ability to engage land-based targets, including moving vehicles. Again, the P-8A's range and endurance, combined with its overall payload capacity, and its vast array of sensors, could help turn the aircraft into more of a multi-mission weapons truck.
Similarly, though the various versions of MALD, including the newest MALD-X, which you can read about in-depth in this past War Zone story, could distract and confuse the air defense systems on enemy warships and shores. In addition to helping to protect itself on the way to a target area, the P-8A could use its large payload capacity to employ significant numbers of MALDs in support of other combat aircraft and cruise missiles as they wend their way to their objectives.
It's not necessarily surprising that the Navy would be interested in growing the P-8A's arsenal and, as a result, its mission sets. As mentioned earlier, there has been a debate going on about exactly this in the Navy's maritime patrol community since around when the Poseidon first entered Navy service in late 2013.
In 2014, a Navy maritime patrol pilot that had time flying the P-3 and the P-8 told The War Zone's own Tyler Rogoway, then writing for Foxtrot Alpha, the following:
"There are currently two schools of thought in the maritime patrol community right now when it comes to how the P-8 should be used. One where it works closely along the lines of its predecessor, and follows the P-3's traditional mission sets of ASuW [anti-surface warfare], ASW [anti-submarine warfare], and limited ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], and another where the P-8 can be adapted more dramatically for a litany of missions, including direct attack on ground targets. Personally, I believe the P-8A should also be equipped with a more robust set of weapons and sensors for the fight against smaller vessels in constrained littoral environments."
"Harpoon is a great weapon, but it's too imprecise to use with civilian shipping nearby and in dense target environments close to shore. P-3C had a robust short-range ASuW capability with AGM-65 Mavericks, and we saw that used in Libya. We took a major step back capability-wise with only Harpoon being deployed aboard the P-8. I would equip P-8A with an off-the-shelf targeting pod such as the AAQ-33 Sniper [Advanced Targeting Pod], which is currently found on everything from USAF F-16s to B-52s. Couple the targeting pod with short-range, laser-guided munitions such as AGM-65 Laser Mavericks, AGM-176 Griffin, and/or or Small Diameter Bombs and you have a lethal and persistent weapons system."
The recent NAVAIR contracting announcement strongly suggests that the proponents of expanding the P-8A's mission set and giving it the ability to carry additional munitions and other stores to realize that expansion, have won the debate after all these years. It's not entirely clear what the Navy's timeline might be for when the aircraft may gain the ability to employ weapons such as SDB-IIs or JDAMs, but the goal certainly now seems to be to integrate these munitions in the future. The contract notice says that the prospective period of performance would run from 2021 to 2026.