A January 28, 2020 solicitation by the Naval Air Systems Command indicating it may modify its P-8 Poseidon patrol planes to carry a wide range of long-range missiles, mines and bombs has brought about an epiphany of sorts in the defense analysis community: the sea-warfare service appeared to be gearing up to convert its fleet of 122 submarine-hunting patrol planes into bombers—and moreover, a bomber based on the Boeing 737 airliner!
The reason that’s possible for a modified airliner to become a deadly weapons platform today is that new glide bombs and missiles allow an airplane to fly well outside the range of enemy air defense weapons and still unleash devastating standoff-range attacks.
All that’s needed is a large “missile truck” that can carry a lot of fuel of weapons, as well as the sensors and datalinks to acquire and engage targets.
But there’s another interesting implication in the decision to adapt the P-8: the U.S. might effectively have an export bomber on its hands for the first time in decades.
The overlap between bombers and maritime patrol planes focused on tracking and attacking enemy ships and submarines, and bombers, dates back to World War I.
In World War II, Liberator heavy bombers armed with depth charges and rockets played a major role in hunting German U-Boats, while Catalina patrol planes were often employed to bomb land and sea targets. The important quality bombers and patrol planes had in common were the range to fly across huge distances on long-endurance missions.
The Poseidon is hardly toothless in its current configuration, capable of employing Mark 54 torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles against both ships and submarines.
But the Navy upgrade would dramatically improve anti-ship lethality with the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which possesses over twice the range of the Harpoon at an estimated 300+ miles, a stealthier radar-cross section, and an advanced multi-mode seeker.
The upgrade may also outfit the P-8 to deploy Mark 62, 63 and 65 naval mines, 500- and 2,000-pound JDAM GPS-guided bombs, and the GBU-53/B Stormbreaker Small Diameter Bomb II, a small 105-pound weapon combining GPS with laser, infrared or radar guidance which can be carried in greater numbers and is intended to have much less potential for collateral damage. These weapons have more modest stand-off range capabilities, and the GBU-53B could be employed against small boats that lack high-altitude air defense weapons, like those employed by the Iranian Navy.
However, JDAMs and Stormbreakers would also enable P-8s to provide long-endurance air support to ground forces in the much the same way that Air Force B-1 and B-52 bombers are routinely called upon today.
A final unusual payload to under consideration is the MALD air-launched decoy, which is designed to so convincingly emulate the performance and signature of a jet fighter that it draws away fire from deadly enemy air defense missiles. The Navy foremost likely intends P-8 launched MALDs to help its carrier-based jet fighters overcome enemy integrated air defense systems.
Undoubtedly, some in the Navy will contend that expanding the P-8’s mission will inevitably come at the expense of the anti-submarine warfare mission, which is high in demand as China’s rapidly expands its submarine fleet.
But the demand for bombers that can both support troops on the ground and bring long-range anti-ship capabilities remains high—particularly as the Air Force is considering early retiring its B-1 bombers that brought both capabilities to the table, due to their operating costs and low maintainability.
An Export Bomber for the 21st Century?
The U.S. has exported very few bombers since World War II, though not a few bombers leftovers from that conflict did indeed go on to see colorful Cold War careers in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. That’s not only because multi-engine bombers are expensive, but they’re associated with aggressive offensive warfare and (by the Cold War era) nuclear warfare.
Besides some B-57 Canberra jet bombers sold to Pakistan, one of the few exceptions to that rule was Australia, which between 1973 and 2010 operated the speedy F-111 Aardvark swing-wing bomber. Australia’s interest in the aircraft it dubbed the “Pigs of the Pacific’ was driven by its need to project forces across long distances to foist off pressure from its military rival, Indonesia.
Australian Aardvarks have since been superseded by Super Hornet and Lightning fighters that, despite their other virtues, simply can’t fly nearly as far. But the Royal Australian Air Force already operates a dozen P-8, and it also has stocks of AGM-158 JASSM stealth cruise missiles (from which the LRASM is derived), as well as JDAM bombs. Converting Australian P-8 to carry standoff-range cruise missiles and glide bombs would be a very simple way to restore Canberra’s ability to project force further into the Pacific as it comes under increasing pressure from an expanding China.
India also operates over a dozen customized P-8I Poseidons which play a critical role in enabling the Indian Navy to monitor ship and submarine movements in the Indian Ocean. The P-8I differs in that it incorporates a sub-hunting Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) sensor, an export variant APY-10 radar, and an Indian Navy-specific datalink.
A report by the Center for New American Security suggested that a logical step to improve the Indian Navy’s sea control capabilities by integrating its highly capable domestic Brahmos supersonic cruise missile for launch from its P-8Is. However, it may not be all that simple to jury-rig integration of a weapon with largely Russian origins onto an American military platform! The soon-to-be-existence of the American upgrade kit might give India a simpler route to beefing up its anti-ship firepower, though undoubtedly a costly one.
Three other operators of the P-8—Norway, South Korea and the United Kingdom—might be interested in the capabilities offered by upgraded Poseidons. The UK fundamentally has an expeditionary military, but no longer has any long-range strike jets. Norway has come under increasing pressure from Russian ships and land-based missile systems. And South Korea is of course locked in into its long-lasting security competition with its northern brethren.
Of course, training and equipping P-8 units for a larger surface-strike role would necessarily come at the detriment of time spent combing the seas for submarines, which pose significant security challenges to all three countries. Thus, it’s far from given that these nations will pursue the ability to convert their Poseidon’s into de facto bombers. Nor is it guaranteed that the upgrade will necessarily be authorized for sale abroad, though neither is it unlikely.
Still, if the defense establishment in any of the above countries decide they need a long-range strike platform it can wield against distant land and sea targets, that capability may now only be an upgrade away, rather than requiring some fantastical bomber design that simply is not being produced anywhere in the world, and that would be too expensive to develop domestically.
That change could have important implications as the security competition between China and the United States over the vastness of the Pacific Ocean seems only set to intensify in the coming decade.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.