Drones Could Save the Navy’s Troubled P-8 Patrol Plane
If the P-8 can’t spot subs, maybe robots can
The U.S. Navy wants to stalk enemy subs with small unmanned aircraft equipped with magnetic anomaly detectors—“MAD” in military parlance. The magnetic-disturbance-sensing robots would be launched by the Navy’s new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, a militarized Boeing 737.
The Navy is floating this research proposal just as Pentagon weapons testers have concluded that the P-8 can’t perform its mission of finding and killing subs. The Poseidon “is not effective for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission and is not effective for wide area anti-submarine search,” Michael Gilmore, chief Pentagon tester, wrote in a report obtained by Bloomberg.
The Navy’s “Low Magnetic Signature Expendable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for Anti-Submarine Warfare” proposal calls for a MAD-equipped drone to be launched from high altitude by aircraft such as the P-8A. It would have a speed of 70 knots, an endurance of 70 minutes, weigh 39 pounds and be capable of deploying from the standard sonobuoy launcher on the Poseidon.
While MAD is an effective sub-hunting method, it suffers from a very short detection range. The P-3C, the tough 1960s patrol plane that is being replaced by 117 P-8As, had to fly just 300 to 500 feet above the water to use its on-board magnetic detection gear.
Flying that low is risky and limits the range of other sensors such as radar. The idea is for the P-8 to remain at a comfortable cruising altitude—thousands of feet—while the drone goes low, spots a sub and tracks it. From on high, the P-8 would launch anti-submarine torpedoes or the upcoming High-Altitude Anti-Submarine-Warfare Weapon Capabilities, a sort of smart bomb for destroying subs.
Such Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have already been developed, the Navy notes, but the earlier models were not designed to be “magnetically quiet,” meaning their metal parts would disturb the sensitive MAD gear.
“Innovative research and techniques are needed to quiet a small UAV that will have known magnetic interference sources such as motors, servos and avionics and minimally use any magnetic or conductive material in the fuselage, wings, controls, control surfaces, structural components, etc.,” the proposal notes.
The new ’bot should also have a camera to distinguish subs from surface ships. The single-use drones should cost less than $5,000 for a batch of 100.
The research proposal suggests there may be daunting technical challenges in building a magnetically quiet aircraft. Whether the drone will quiet concerns about the P-8’s sub-hunting abilities is another matter.