U.S. Continues Testing Surveillance Aircraft in Singapore

A U.S. surveillance plane is joining Singapore’s military in exercises as the navy tests the aircraft’s capabilities after the Pentagon found it ineffective at some tasks.

The P-8A Poseidon, a Boeing Co. 737-800 modified with radar and sensors, is conducting anti-submarine and surface warfare sorties as part of the CARAT Singapore maneuvers that end Aug. 8, according to mission commander Lieutenant Commander Colette Lazenka.

The aircraft, still in its testing phase, is faster and has more advanced systems than the Lockheed Martin Corp. P-3 Orion, Lazenka said. Flaws in the $35 billion P-8A program included radar performance, sensor integration and data transfer, according to a Pentagon report obtained by Bloomberg News in January.

“The P-8 is more exciting for me because it’s so technologically advanced,” said Lazenka, who has about five years of experience flying each plane. Six Poseidons have participated in exercises in Malaysia, Thailand, Guam, Philippines and Japan and helped in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, she said.

The plane’s primary missions include tracking Chinese submarines as President Xi Jinping expands the reach of the navy and the country asserts claims to large parts of the East and South China Seas. China is ratcheting up pressure on neighbors including Japan and the Philippines as the U.S. seeks to reassure allies it remains committed to an economic and strategic rebalancing to the region.

Range, Endurance

“Its main advantages are range, endurance, speed, three things that are especially important in covering such a large area as the Pacific and Indian oceans,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Also, the fact that it uses a much newer airframe, especially such a ubiquitous airframe, the 737, makes for easier maintenance and servicing.”

The P-8A isn’t yet effective at hunting submarines or performing reconnaissance over large areas, Michael Gilmore, chief of the Pentagon testing office, wrote in his annual report on major weapons. The navy in November declared the aircraft ready for combat deployment and has developed software upgrades to correct deficiencies, according to Lieutenant Caroline Hutcheson, a navy spokeswoman.

The U.S. deployed P-8As earlier this year to join the search for MH370, which disappeared in March with 239 people on board en route to Beijing. For such missions, the plane will typically fly at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), dipping to 1,000 feet to get a closer visual look at objects, flying at 250-270 knots with a search time of eight to nine hours, according to the U.S. Navy.

“The new P-8A is part of the Navy’s commitment to the Pacific rebalance, bringing newer and more capable aircraft to the 7th Fleet to ensure the Navy is best postured to honor its security commitments to the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” the navy said in a March 19 statement.