P-8A Poseidon in the Offensive Surface Warfare Role

Over at CIMSEC, there is a nice piece suggesting that the P-8A Poseidon needs to have the LRASM integrated quickly to boost its ability to conduct offensive Surface Warfare, that is, shooting enemy ships.

Recent months have found uniformed officers and naval strategists writing and speaking about regaining the ability of U.S. Navy (USN) ships to conduct offensive anti-surface warfare (ASuW). The discussion has been lively and featured many authors and many different approaches. Some solutions are incremental, such as fielding more capable long-range weapons in existing launch systems.[i] Others are more radical, such as trading large long-range missile defense interceptors for small point defense missiles and building a new generation of multi-role cruise missiles.[ii]

As Lieutenant Glynn notes, the Poseidon is currently armed with the aged and obsolescent AGM-84 Harpoon. 

Of course, the problem isn’t simply that the P-8 program doesn’t currently have a plan to integrate the Long Range Anti-ship Missile. The problem is a bit more widespread than that.

The only active US over the horizon anti-ship missile right now is the Harpoon. And the Harpoon has some serious issues. First, it is old. Sure, much of it has been upgraded over the years, but the basic technology is still a generation in the past.  It has a fairly short range, roughly in the neighborhood of 75 miles. Against a top tier opponent (say, China) that may well mean the launching platform has to close within range of the target’s surface to air or surface to surface missile envelope. The whole point of standoff weapons is to avoid that.

Nor is the Harpoon stealthy. More recent missile programs have addressed enemy point defenses by generally one of two methods. First, make a really fast missile. That reduces the target’s available reaction time. The Russo-Indian Brahmos supersonic ASM uses this approach. The other method is to make the missile somewhat stealthy, thereby reducing the detection range. That similarly reduces the target’s available reaction time.

One other issue that Lt. Glynn touches upon is the numbers of ships that even carry Harpoon. It wasn’t so long ago that every  major surface combatant in our fleet carried it. Perry class frigates, Spruance class destroyers, the nuclear cruisers as well as the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers. As well, the first batch of DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Aegis destroyers carried Harpoon. But of most of those ships are gone, or soon will be. The Navy still has 22 Ticos, and the early Burkes. The Perry class has been stripped of its missile capability. The later construction Burkes had to give something up  to fit a helo hangar aboard, and the Harpoon launcher was it. They do have a limited surface to surface capability using their SM-2 missiles, but that is range limited to the radar horizon, and its warhead is quite small, and not designed for attacking ships.

In short, just as the Navy is again beginning to face a serious blue water threat, it finds itself with very limited means of actually sinking enemy surface ships. Since World War II, the Navy has (with good reason) considered the submarine and the airplane as the two primary methods of destroying enemy ships. And that likely will remain the case. But it cannot afford to risk not having a robust surface warfare capability against a near peer blue water fleet.

4 thoughts on “P-8A Poseidon in the Offensive Surface Warfare Role”

  1. Hitting the nail on the head with this one. We’ve got a fairly robust guided bomb and small missile arsenal, but the lack of modern surface attack and cruise missiles is a glaring weakness in both naval and air weapons at the moment. Replacements for the Tomahawk and Harpoon in ships and sub magazines are long overdue, and we also have to integrate modern long range missiles onto the panoply of our aircraft, especially the F-35 and FA-18 due to their relative short range, especially if our carriers are forced to operate farther from the enemy than recent experience.

  2. Only one minor quibble here – Flt IIA Burkes didn’t give up the Harpoon launchers to get the helo hangar. The launchers on a Burke are located at the midships QD, between the fore and aft superstructures, where they would not interfere in any way with the addition of the hangar. The IIA’s also – or at least the early ones – were still wired for Harpoon, and even have the brackets in CIC to install the console. It would be a matter of an afternoon’s work to put Harpoon back onboard.

    The reason that it was left off is because the Navy doesn’t (or at least didn’t in 1999-2000) want a BVR SUW capability. The stated reason for this back then was that, based on rules of engagement, we needed to have VID on all tracks before shooting at them in anything other than a RED / FREE environment, and since we were never going to get an ROE like that, what was the point of buying the launchers and the birds for it?

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