May 13, 2021 – “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” – President George Washington, Nov. 15, 1781
Ranging from Arctic Alaska to subtropical Florida, the bald eagle is an adaptable bird of prey that uses its considerable arsenal of strengths to stand at the apex of nature’s food chain.
Soaring on a wingspan of more than 6 feet, the powerful raptor can quickly transition from dominating the air to reaching into the sea to snatch up unwitting fish with the crushing force of its twin talons.
It is with similar adaptability and lethality that the “Screaming Eagles” of the U.S. Navy’s Patrol Squadron One (VP-1), stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, provide the joint force participating in Northern Edge 2021 (NE21) with multi-mission maritime patrol.
NE21 is one in a series of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercises designed to sharpen the joint forces’ skills; to practice tactics, techniques and procedures; to improve command, control and communication relationships; and to develop cooperative plans and programs.
VP-1 was established in 1943, operating the maritime patrol aircraft types P-2 Neptune and P-3 Orion before completing the transition to the Boeing 737-based P-8A Poseidon in 2019.
Lt. Cmdr. C.J. “Monkey” Brass, VP-1 naval flight officer and mission commander, said the unit operates the Poseidon as a multi-mission platform in support of maritime and joint operations.
“VP-1 is a maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadron,” Brass said. “We specialize in anti-submarine warfare (ASW); anti-surface warfare (ASuW); and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).”
To effectively support those missions is a P-8 crew of nine Sailors. Brass said he serves as the tactical coordinator who directs the efforts of the other aircrewmen to detect and engage surface and subsurface targets. He is assisted by a co-tactical coordinator.
“On station, whether it’s maritime ISR or anti-submarine warfare, the tactical employment of the aircraft as far as where we’re flying, where we’re dropping buoys, where we’re focusing our radar or camera, those decisions are ultimately mine to make with input from my operators of course because they’re the experts on their individual systems,” Brass said.
On the Poseidon flight deck are three pilots with two flying the aircraft while one rests to support the considerable endurance of the aircraft.
Two acoustic operators, called sensor 1 and sensor 2, use sonar technology to detect, analyze, classify and track subsurface contacts – mostly submarines.
Two electronic warfare operators, sensor 3 and sensor 4, use radar, infrared imaging, and an electronic support measures (ESM) system to detect, analyze, classify and track surface contacts.
Like an eagle that can see four times farther than humans to spot its prey, the crew of the Poseidon uses its sensors to great advantage. By design, submarines are stealthy underwater craft that don’t want to be found. It’s the job of Sailors like Naval Air Crewman (Operator) 1st Class William Aguilera, P-8 acoustic operator, to find them.
“Our main capability is dropping sonobuoys,” he said, using a word that is a combination of sonar and buoy. “We usually use a passive sonobuoy that we deploy at certain depths we deem necessary based on where we think the adversary sub is going to be to have better propagation paths from the submarine to our buoy, as well as oceanographic effects on how well the sound is going to be delineated through water. We want to employ that sensor in the best spot necessary to have the furthest reach for optimal tactical employment so, later on, we can put a weapon on target.”
In a nutshell, Aguilera, sensor 1, works with sensor 2 to determine the best place to drop the sonobuoys, deploying them at the optimal depth with sea conditions in mind to ensure the best possibility of picking up a sub.
“Used passively, a sonobuoy will pick up the sound and send it up to our aircraft,” Aguilera explained. “Our system interprets it, displays it to our screen, and then my job and Sensor 2’s job is to analyze the sound and determine what kind of submarine it is.”
“We also have active buoys that are more of a traditional type of detection capability like what you would see in the movies,” he said, conjuring images and sounds of cinematic submarine thrillers like the Enemy Below and Das Boot. “It sends a ping out that bounces off the contact in the water and comes back, and it gives us a position of a potential submarine.”
Brass said sensor 3 and sensor 4 use similar teamwork to find surface contacts.
“We have a surface-search radar onboard the aircraft designed for the maritime environment, searching on the surface of the water for any contacts, whether it be something very small like a fishing boat or a large naval combatant,” he said. “We have an EOIR (electro-optical/infrared) turret, or camera, that allows us to positively identify different contacts and anything else we are looking for.”
Additionally, the ESM suite grants the capability to passively pick up radar and radio signals to further paint a picture of the situation.
According to the Audubon Society Center for Birds of Prey website, a bald eagle can grip its prey with more than 300 pounds per square inch, sinking its razor sharp talons into a hapless herring. The P-8 is equally as lethal, housing a weapons bay, four wing weapons pylons and two centerline pylons.
For engaging submarines, the P-8 can deploy Mark 54 acoustically homing, air-launched torpedoes with an explosive yield of 238 pounds of TNT. For surface ships, the Poseidon can launch AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles with a range in excess of 67 nautical miles.
Additionally, the P-8 can use its weapons bay to drop UNI-PAC II Air-Drop Survival Kits to help stranded Sailors, other service members and civilian mariners. The kit includes supplies and necessary equipment needed to survive until rescue forces arrive.
“Search and rescue is a collateral mission we do,” Brass said. “We stand various types of alerts or readies back at home station for search and rescue. We have the capability to carry a search and rescue (SAR) kit in our weapons bay like we would carry a torpedo. Sensors like our radar and EOIR camera greatly assist with SAR.”
In 2016, a Misawa Air Base, Japan, P-8 assisted in rescuing three mariners stranded on a remote Pacific island when the Poseidon crew spotted a “help” sign the castaways spelled out using palm tree fronds.
Brass said his crew put all of the Poseidon’s multi-mission capabilities together to support the NE21 joint effort out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
“Northern Edge provides a rare opportunity to operate with all of our brothers and sisters in the other services,” he said. “It takes a lot to get this many people, ships, aircraft and ground-support equipment all together for one big event.
“What we bring to the fight is the maritime patrol and reconnaissance capability, which is pretty unique to us,” Brass continued. “We specialize in the maritime environment being a Navy asset. Whether it’s our endurance, our communications or our sensors, that’s what makes us stand out from other units.”
The tactical coordinator said his crew wasn’t constrained to the sea during the exercise.
“We can also conduct over-land missions,” Brass said. “Even though it’s not our primary mission, we do it very well.”
The P-8 crew uses the Link-16 military tactical data link system to network with U.S. and allied ground-based elements, ships and aircraft. The network is a critical combat multiplier during exercises and operations like NE21.
“The situational awareness it provides in a very complex, very busy airspace is crucial,” Brass said. “Whether it’s an exercise like this where there are multiple safety protocols in place, there’s a lot of deconfliction and mission planning that takes place ahead of time, or a real-world operation, it provides situational awareness where you can see all the other friendly blue forces on your screen, and can be used for airspace deconfliction and sharing important information.”
He said his crew is accustomed to working with the Navy’s sister services.
“With us being one of the few naval land-based aircraft versus being carrier-based, we are used to operating primarily out of Air Force bases,” Brass said. “Most people have seen or heard of a P-8 before. And with it being 737 based – one of the most common aircraft on the planet – people are familiar with how it gets refueled, what its requirements are, what kind of parking spot it needs, and that definitely makes it easier.
“When we go on detachment, we are used to being self-sufficient, and we’re used to operating at forward-deployed areas with minimal support, so when we come into these large-scale exercises with that mentality, and we’re given support like hangar space, storage space, aircrew mission-planning space, it makes it easier than what we planned for,” Brass elaborated.
The eagle dominates both land and sea, over snow and ice or over open subtropical waters, owing to its unparalleled adaptability. The Screaming Eagles demonstrated equal adaptability during NE21.
“We definitely are a multi-mission aircraft, and I think we do that well,” Brass said. “One day we could be going out looking for submarines doing ASW, and the very next day we could be doing search and rescue deploying a SAR kit to save some people who just had an accident at sea.”