Electronic Weapons: Super Snooper

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February 27, 2008: Sensor and radar technology is changing so quickly that the U.S. Air Force and Navy are having a hard time designing a replacement for their current electronic warfare (EW) aircraft. The Navy wants to replace the EW version of its P-3 reconnaissance aircraft (EP-3), while the air force has several elderly aircraft using a wide array of sensors and radars. The navy has decided that sensors have become small enough, and cheap enough, that they can load up a Boeing 737 with radar, sensors, computers, mini-UAVs and the people needed to run it all, and perform functions formerly taken care of by several different aircraft. This new Super Snooper will be the EP-8. It will mount an AESA radar for scanning the sea (or land) below in great detail. Also mounted on (actually, built in) the aircraft skin are dozens of antennas, for detecting any kind of nearby electronic emissions. The EP-8 would be used for a wider array of missions than its predecessor, the EP-3. In addition to the traditional trolling off the coast of, say, China, North Korea or Iran, to detect how the locals use their electronic devices (radars, communications, whatever), the EP-8 can also fly over combat zones seeking out cell phone, walkie-talkie or other radio use, and locating the people involved. The EP-8 carries missiles, as well as small UAVs that can be used to test enemy air defenses (which can result in a missile to take out the hostile radar).

The 737 is also being used as the P-3 replacement (the P-8As), which enters service in about three years. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet, compared to the four engine turboprop P-3, it is a more capable plane. The P8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3, and is larger (118 foot wingspan, versus 100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs spotted by sonar arrays or satellites.

However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons, versus 5.6.) This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobouys) are, pound for pound, more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew, of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.

The 737 has, like the P-3. been equipped with bomb hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design, and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3 (which was based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954, although only 170 were built, plus 600 P-3s. About 40 Electras are still in service). The Boeing 737 first flew in 1965, and over 5,000 have been built. The P-8A will be the first 737 designed with a bomb bay and four wing racks for weapons.

The EP-8 will be fitted for aerial refueling, something the air force is not enthusiastic about. But the navy is pitching the EP-8 as a "strategic asset" (looking for critical information to fill out the "big picture" for the most senior leaders). So the air force will have to play along. The navy is adopting some air force practices, like putting many of the EP-8 crew (the sensor operators) on the ground, back in the U.S., and linked to the EP-8 via satellite. The air force has had great success doing this with their dozens of Predator UAVs, which are flown by operators stationed in the American Midwest.

The P-8 looks like it will be the last maritime reconnaissance aircraft with people aboard. In fact, there are a growing number of UAV proponents in the navy and air force who want the next generation of aircraft to be unmanned. But the UAV technology (particularly the reliability) is not quite there yet.

 


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