On September 19, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy announced that Australia’s fleet of 14 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will receive substantial upgrades. This was done in conjunction with the news that a 4th Triton RPS surveillance drone will also be added to the inventory. The combined value of the package is $1.5 billion.
One does not usually consider Poseidons to be a powerful strike platform – they are based on a Boeing 737 commercial airframe – but they will be by adding on LRASM: the Long Range Anti Ship Missile, in production since 2017. There has been no announcement that Australia will do so, but the USN is in the process of adding LRASMs to their P-8A fleet and it seems certain that we will follow suite. The announced upgrades are a necessary precursor to being able to deploy the weapon – arguably the most formidable anti-ship missile in the world.
In dry technical language, this will be an improvement to what is known as Increment Three, Block Two. According to evidence given to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, it is scheduled to begin in 2026, and consists of:
“….ECP 6 and ECP 7, increases ASW capabilities including ASW Signal Intelligence, Wideband SATCOM, Higher-Than-Secret processing, enhanced track management and sensor fusion (Minotaur), and Enhanced Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC-E). The first P-8A test aircraft completed the ECP 6 modification in March 2022 to support developmental and operational testing beginning in FY2022. ECP 7 (MAC-E) integration will occur prior to developmental testing.”
A key part of this package is Minotaur, which is a data fusion engine developed by the USN in conjunction with John Hopkins University that allows multiple platforms – ships and aircraft – to be networked. A further element is Triton, which has been described as having an unblinking stare at a region of interest using its radar, EO and SIGINT capabilities to stream huge amounts of data to other assets, including P-8As.
Once upgraded, the USN says the aircraft will be able to deploy network enabled weapons, which is code for LRASM – along with other smart munitions such as sea mines and JDAMs. The addition of LRASM is hugely significant because it will transform the aircraft into strategic strike assets capable of destroying surface combatants up to the size of aircraft carriers at ranges in excess of 1,000km.
To use its proper name, the AGM-158C is based on the earlier JASSM-ER (Joint Air to Surface Stand Off Missile – Extended Range) also manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Both JASSM and LRASM are already in the RAAF inventory, with 200 of the latter purchased in a February 2020 package valued at $1.5 billion. They can currently be carried by Super Hornets and Growlers and they have the potential to also equip F-35As. The company says:
“LRASM is a precision-guided intelligent anti-ship missile design to interdict a variety of surface threats at very long range, navigating semi-autonomously to the target, and delivering a precise payload from safe, standoff range.”
It has a very stealthy design and has three guidance systems – GPS; an inertial navigation unit and also an infrared imaging camera that can distinguish between targets and by using AI can select the one of highest value. The 450kg warhead is designed to explode after penetrating the hull of a ship, which would cause catastrophic damage to anything that it struck.
Even the largest surface combatant or supply vessel would be crippled – probably beyond the point of repair if it were not sunk outright. Missiles in flight can communicate with each other via extremely short, low power data link signals for coordinated swarming attacks. Otherwise, the AGM-158Cs do not emit any signals, making them extremely difficult to detect, particular since they fly just above sea level at high subsonic speed.
With these types of weapons, it is possible to trade off payload for increased range. An LRASM with a still extremely formidable 250kg blast fragmentation warhead would be able to fly for 1,500km using its fuel-efficient Williams turbofan engine. This power plant also equips Tomahawk and AGM-86 cruise missiles.
Currently USN and RAAF P-8As carry the venerable but obsolescent AGM-84 Harpoon missile for surface attack with a range of 140km. This means that they would only be used to strike surface targets that have limited short-range capacity for self-defence so as not to risk the loss of the aircraft and crew. In other words, in their current configuration they would never be used in a conflict involving the Chinese navy – the PLA(N) – because it is comprised of modern warships with good area defence capabilities.
However, LRASM changes all that because of its great range and stealth. It means that a P-8A could simultaneously launch four of them well outside the detection range of enemy radar and defensive missiles – even the most capable of which can travel around 500km in the case of a Russian S-400 system. A surface to air missile must overcome gravity and a standing start, while that force works to the benefit of an air launched weapon such as LRASM that is already travelling at the speed of the host aircraft.
Unrefuelled, a Poseidon could make a Darwin-Singapore return flight, but with the addition of an aerial tanker such as the RAAF’s KC-30A its range becomes virtually limitless. This combination makes LRASM-equipped P-8As a very powerful strategic deterrent and transforms their role from principally a surveillance and ASW platform into something far more formidable.
The addition of LRASMs to the USN inventory – and those of allied nations including not only Australia but potentially Japan, South Korea and even New Zealand – will make planning for the PLA(N) even more difficult than it is at the moment.
In times of peace, Boeing 737s and other twin-engine passenger aircraft with almost identical radar cross-sections are everywhere in the region and sorting out military aircraft from commercial flights would be difficult, especially as transponders can be switched off. This means that an adversary would never be completely sure about how many LRASM-equipped P-8As were in the region or exactly where they were based.
Putting this together, after 2026 when they become operational, the PLA(N) could be faced with a massive barrage of stealthy LRASMs coming from different directions and reaching their targets almost simultaneously. This would make a major amphibious assault on Taiwan – or any other country – an extremely risky proposition.
Two or three RAAF Poseidons could depart Darwin and meet up with a KC-30A while receiving streaming data from assets such as Tritons and surveillance satellites. Then getting close to 1,000km from potential targets, they would climb to maximum altitude, still invisible to ground based radar because of the curvature of the earth.
A few seconds before launch they would go to maximum speed to give the LRASMs as much kinetic energy as possible. After release, the missiles would slowly descend to a lower altitude preserving fuel while remaining undetected. They would also be receiving target data information from other platforms, and they would share that among themselves.
For the final phase they would descend as close to see level as possible and they would all select their targets and decide on the best direction from which to approach, possibly taking advantage geography to come from behind an island or other feature. Even if some, or all, of them were detected at this late stage, hostile warships would only have a few seconds to react.
Once hit, a combination of the large warhead and any remaining unburnt fuel would cause catastrophic damage to the target. If three RAAF P-8s were used, that would be up to 12 ships simultaneously destroyed. Since LRASMs can also be carried by Super Hornets and Growlers an attack by the USN alone could be decisive but with the potential addition of allies such as Australia such a scenario should deter even the most determined aggressor.
It should also be mentioned that the upgrade to Increment 3 will improve the ASW performance of the Poseidons. The move to multi-static processing means that a field of sonobuoys dropped from the aircraft could be listening for reflected sounds from an enemy submarine with the emitter being a third party such as a surface ship with a powerful active sonar. In theory, multi-static operations could use almost any sound source, such as an underwater explosion.
The upgrades to the Australian aircraft will be completed by 2030.