The increasing global reach of Chinese nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, armed with JL-2 weapons reportedly able to hit parts of the US, continues to inspire an ongoing Navy effort to accelerate production of attack submarines, prepare long-dwell drones for deployment to the Pacific and continue acquisition of torpedo-armed sub-hunting planes such as the P-8/A Poseidon.
Seeking to overcome the Pacific’s “tyranny of distance” dispersed geography, and track China’s expanding fleet of submarines, the Navy is working with Congress to produce as many as three Virginia-class submarines per year, moving beyond the current plan to build two. In the air, the Navy has been moving to place its new Triton sea drones in Guam and has recently awarded Boeing a $2.4 billion deal to produce 19 more P-8A Poseidon surveillance and attack planes.
Given the Poseidon’s role as a high-tech surveillance aircraft, known for capturing video of Chinese phony island building in the South China Sea (land reclamation) several years ago, it takes little imagination to envision ways its advanced sensors, sonobuoys and weapons could function as part of a containment strategy against Chinese expansion -- and even operate as a deterrent against China’s growing fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).
The PLA Navy has, in recent years, been expanding its reach beyond the Pacific as part of a visible effort to become a major-power international force. Chinese SSBNs have been sighted at great distances from Western Pacific shores, according to numerous news reports -- and the existence of both JL-2s and emerging JL-3s have increased pressure on the US. According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, the Chinese had deployed up to 48 JL-2 launchers on submarines as of 2017. With ranges greater than 4,500 miles, JL-2s traveling well beyond China’s immediate vicinity can hold US areas at risk.
Just last year, Captain James Fanell, a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, warned Congress about the need to track and deter Chinese nuclear-armed submarines.
“Every time a [PLA Navy] SSBN departs on a strategic nuclear patrol, the [U.S. Navy] must follow closely enough to be ready to sink them if they ever attempt to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM towards our shores,” he told Congress, according to an essay called “China’s new undersea nuclear deterrent strategy doctrine and capabilities” from the National Defense University. (Dr. Toshi Yoshirara & Dr. James Holmes)
The essay goes on to make the case that, given the difficulties associated with intercepting possible Chinese SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), an intelligent way to address the threat might be to “hold Chinese SSBNs at risk so they can be destroyed preemptively before their SLBMs can be launched.”
The Poseidon, alongside ISR-enabled SSN attack submarines, seems well positioned to help perform this SSBN sub-hunting mission for a number of reasons. Not only is the P-8’s 564 mph speed considerably faster than the P-3 Orion it is replacing, but its six additional fuel tanks enable it to search wider swaths of ocean and spend more dwell-time patrolling high-threat areas. Navy developers explain the Poseidon can operate on 10-hour missions at ranges out to 1,200 nautical miles. More dwell time capacity, fortified by high-speeds, seems to position the Poseidon well for covering wide areas in search of “hidden” Chinese SSBNs.
The P-8A, a militarized variant of Boeing’s 737-800, includes torpedo and Harpoon weapons stations, 129 sonobuoys and an in-flight refueling station, providing longer ranges, sub-hunting depth penetration and various attack options. Given that a P-8 can conduct sonobuoy sub-hunting missions from higher altitudes than surface ships, helicopters or other lower-flying aircraft, it can operate with decreased risk from enemy surface fire and swarming small boat attacks. Unlike many drones and other ISR assets, a Poseidon can not only find and track enemy submarines but attack and destroy them as well.
Alongside its AN/APY-10 surveillance radar and MX-series electro-optical/infrared cameras optimized to scan the ocean surface, the Poseidon’s air-parachuted sonobuoys can find submarines at various depths beneath the surface. The surveillance aircraft can operate as a “node” within a broader sub-hunting network consisting of surface ships, unmanned surface vessels, aerial drone-mounted maritime sensors and submarines. As part of its contribution to interconnected sub-hunting missions, the Poseidon can draw upon an Active Electronically Scanned Array, Synthetic Aperture Radar and Ground Moving Target Indicator.
By lowering hydrophones and a magnetic compass to a pre-determined depth, connected by cable to a floating surface radio transmitter, Poseidon sonobuoys can convert acoustic energy from the water into a radio signal sent to aircraft computer processors, according to a June 2018 issue of “Physics World.”
Also, Poseidon-dispatched sonobuoys can contribute to the often discussed “US Navy Fish Hook Undersea Defense Line,” a seamless network of hydrophones, sensors and strategically positioned assets stretching from coastal areas off of Northern China down near the Philippines all the way to Indonesia, according to an essay from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called “China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability.”
An improved aerial sub-hunting presence offered by the Poseidon, it seems, could help reinforce this “Undersea Defense Line” effort to prevent Chinese SSBNs from leaving the region undetected.
Interestingly, Poseidon planes might offer a significant nuance to the Pentagon’s well-cultivated nuclear deterrence posture, by introducing a technically advanced method of finding and destroying enemy SSBNs from the air. It aligns with the current “offensive power can be the best defense” approach central to the Pentagon’s nuclear-triad strategic deterrence strategy. Holding Chinese SSBNs at risk, could at very least help further deter China from contemplating some kind of sub-launched nuclear strike. The Poseidon could almost function as a kind of connective tissue between the undersea and air portions of the nuclear triad. The current air leg of the triad, consisting of platforms such as the B-2 and B-52 bombers, is not able to track or destroy submarines. A Poseidon could further fortify the air leg of the triad while also providing crucial intelligence to surface ships and US undersea assets seeking to track Chinese SSBNs.
Currently in service with UK, Norwegian and Australian militaries, among others, the Poseidon is increasingly in demand in the international market.