NAVAL AIR STATION WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. — At first glance, the U.S. Navy's new aircraft looks like nothing more than an airliner. That's until you look under the wing of the P-8A Poseidon.
Its pylons can carry some of the fleet's most fearsome weapons, like the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile or the Harpoon anti-ship missile. It may be built on a Boeing 737 airframe, but make no mistake: the P-8A is a warplane.
With the constant roar of EA-18G Growlers on the flight line beyond, the service unveiled its new training center for an aircraft that it views as a centerpiece of efforts to deter potential adversaries like Putin's Russia.
This state-of-the-art airplane supports not only the "pivot to the Pacific but the reoccurring and the re-emerging Russian threat in the Atlantic," Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, the head of the Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, told me in an interview.
Unlike the venerable Boeing 737 it's based upon, the P-8 isn't meant to carry passengers between airports with in-flight movies and beverage service. It's built to hunt submarines.
"The need for this aircraft is centered squarely around anti-submarine warfare and being able to provide a long-range quick reaction that nothing else in our Navy can provide," said Cozad, a career P-3 Orion pilot whose early career was defined by Cold War missions against the Soviets.
"We've had a holiday from anti-submarine warfare as [the Navy] has been focused on non-traditional overland missions in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said, making clear that this hiatus is now over. Cozad and other Pentagon leaders are increasingly concerned about Russia and China's advanced submarines that can harass and even threaten American ships.
Enter the P-8A. The service is purchasing over 100 P-8As to replace the aging P-3 fleet. Those fliers will be trained in the chess-match of submarine hunting at the new P-8A Fleet Training Center here, an 103,000-square-foot facility where crews learn to fly and operate the jet's sophisticated surveillance systems, such as sono-buoys that ping the depths for subs. On my tour through the massive restricted facility, we saw the Weapons Tactics Trainers and full-motion and stilt mounted Operational Flight Trainers. The entire fleet will be switched to the P-8A by 2020.
Back on the tarmac, I climbed the stairs into the new P-8A and met Capt. Dave Whitehead, the skipper of Patrol Squadron 30. This is Whitehead’s jet and it is clear he is proud of it.
A naval flight officer "with a few thousand hours" in the P-3, Whitehead says that the new jet is easier on crews — especially on long-haul missions. Comfort is an important function.
"If you’re on a P-3 bouncing around and a lot of loud noise, your usefulness degrades through the course of a mission – not so much with the P-8," Whitehead told me. "That helps with mission accomplishment and recognizing targets."
The P-8A has a roomy feel and a spacious layout. Looking rearward from the flight deck, a small airline-like seating area (with overhead bins) is on the starboard side and slightly behind that is a row of panels and single swivel seats. Those are the stations where NFOs manage radars, sono-buoys and more for tactical missions; each workstation is configurable. Behind the workstations are what look to be crates, but are in fact, sono-bouys to drop in the water to detect and track enemy subs.
The P-8 program, from the new jets to the transition program, is an impressive one. It is also a clear message that the U.S. Navy is preparing to be ready to counter the submarine threat posed by countries
like North Korea, Iran, China and Russia. Bringing these jets into the fleet is only the beginning. Their configurable systems, Whitehead said, allow it to keep "pace with rapidly evolving threats."
Lt. Naveed Jamali, an intelligence officer with the Navy Reserve, is the author of the memoir "How to Catch a Russian Spy."
Photo Credit: Courtesy Naveed Jamali
Author note: Naveed Jamali, a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, is a frequent contributor to Military Times and the author of the memoir, "How to Catch a Russian Spy."