The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is a military aircraft designed to carry out anti-surface warfare and electronic surveillance. It can also transport cargo and act as an aerial refueling tanker. As a militarized variant of the Boeing 737 commercial aircraft, this newest addition to the Boeing family marks the first military aircraft that features an open architecture platform for system integration. The aircraft has been in production since 2001, but it was only recently approved for production by the United States Navy.

Expanding on the capabilities of the long-serving and legendary P-3 Orion built by Lockheed, the Boeing-built P-8 Poseidon provides “persistent maritime patrol” at greater speed and range than its predecessor. It can quickly deploy to carry out a wide range of missions anywhere in the world from drug interdiction to maritime surveillance, electronic surveillance, and even recently, search-and-rescue (SAR) missions.

The Poseidon flies with two high-bypass CFM56 turbofan engines. It cruises at 490 knots with a range of some 1,200 nautical miles, with four hours of loiter time on station. It is capable of inflight refueling as well which means it can operate longer than the P-3 Orion it replaced.

The P-8A has an integrated, active multi-static and passive acoustic sensor system, inverse synthetic aperture radar, a new electronic support measures system, a new electro-optical/infrared sensor, and a digital magnetic anomaly detector to precisely locate the position of a submarine below the surface.

Its armaments include Torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, bombs, mines, and now the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, that is slated to replace the Harpoon.

It is also configured to carry the UNIPAC II and III Search and Rescue (SAR) kit in significant numbers on its four wing pylons and five internal bomb bay hardpoints. It can even employ them manually via a free-fall access hatch at the bottom rear of the fuselage.


The Premier Maritime Search and Rescue Platform

UNIPAC-III the Search and Rescue raft testing
Navy testing of the new UNIPAC-III the Search and Rescue raft. (U.S. Navy)

In recent years, several at-sea Search-and-Rescue operations in which the Poseidon played an important role, reveal that this aircraft may become the premier platform for maritime search and rescue in peace and wartime. The Poseidon’s enhanced SAR capability has been in the works since 2019 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

The most recent rescue took place several days ago when a Poseidon based in Japan flew to Guam to assist in the search of a missing fishing boat with eight persons aboard.

The 23-foot skiff had gone missing on November 3 after losing power; it was overdue near Oneop Atoll, Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia. An extensive search was then attempted by the ship FSS Micronesia, various Coast Guard assets, and even local civilian volunteers for several days without success.  Local authorities then asked the U.S. Navy for assistance.

A P-8 Poseidon with the “Tridents” of Patrol Squadron VP-26 deployed to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa then sortied some 1,400 miles to Guam to assist in operations. It faced the big disadvantage of the trail being cold after several days of fruitless search efforts. However, the Poseidon searched for an additional four days and found the lost vessel and its six crewmembers still alive.

This is important. A single Navy aircraft (of commercial airliner size) found a small fishing boat that was missing for several days after an unsuccessful search by Micronesian navy and coast guard assets and civilian searchers could not.


The SAR Capabilities of the P-8 Poseidon Shine Through

UNIPAC II Search and Rescue (SAR) kit
A UNIPAC II Search and Rescue (SAR) kit in the bomb-bay of a P-8 Poseidon. (U.S. Navy)

Here is where the SAR capabilities of the Poseidon took center stage.

First, it has a Synthetic Aperture Radar which creates a high-resolution image of the search area that looks like a highly detailed black and white photograph. It can also distinguish between a white cap and a small boat. The world’s oceans are unspeakably vast and from 5,000 feet in the air, a small boat looks like a speck on the water. The higher you fly the less likely you are to see it at all. This is why helicopters have been so useful as SAR assets, as they fly low and slow. With this radar, the Poseidon can fly above 20,000 feet and sweep enormous swaths of the ocean all at once.

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The Poseidon is not limited to searching only in daylight hours but can also see through the gloom of night and bad weather. That is why a days-old trail did not prevent it from finding the survivors.

Finding a missing boat in the middle of the ocean is not enough; you also need to be able to sustain the survivors and establish communications so a rescue ship can find and recover them. The Poseidon dropped a UNIPAC II Search and Rescue (SAR) kit to the survivors. The kit is comprised of an 18-man liferaft that inflates when it contacts seawater. The liferaft contains, food, water, medical supplies, and a radio.

Since 2001, the P-8 Poseidon has been used by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). Orders have also been placed by the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF), the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN). Japan also has plans to integrate it into its maritime fleet. It is set to purchase four of the aircraft in 2020, with an option for another four in the future.


A Revolution in Search and Rescue

Gulf of Carpentaria search and rescue images
TerraSAR-X Image over the Gulf of Carpentaria. Enhanced image with +/- 30 minutes VMS information of fishing vessels (Left) and Outputs of automatic vessel detection, where the red circles indicate the candidates of detected fishing vessels. (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation)

The P-8 Poseidon is changing the way the U.S. Navy conducts SAR operations. It is capable of operating in low-altitude environments for extended periods of time. This ability is vital in doing search and rescue work which often combines sensor data to locate a lost vessel but requires eyeballs out windows to locate survivors in the water.

The aircraft can take high-resolution pictures and videos, and then encrypt and transmit those images back to base or to other naval vessels. This is a huge advantage to a battle force commander because it gives him a data stream of intelligence from hundreds of miles away in near real-time.

During WWII, there were several incidents where survivors of naval battles waited as much as a week for rescue while suffering the effects of exposure, cold water temperatures, dehydration, starvation, and their own battle injuries. One of the most well-known incidents involved the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis which lost more than 600 men in the water. They were waiting six days to be rescued.

In WWII, the Navy strung out destroyers and submarines as dedicated SAR platforms. It had whole squadrons of PBY Catalina search aircraft to look for survivors after naval battles or to recover downed pilots after airstrikes. Now we nearly have all that search capability in a single aircraft.

In a modern naval battle, the P-8 Poseidon would be able to detect the location of a sunk U.S. Navy ship; traverse 1,000 miles of ocean in just two hours; locate the survivors and drop enough rafts, food, and water assuring the survival of hundreds of sailors at once.


The Future of the P-8 Poseidon

P-8 Poseidon getting refueled mid air
A P-8A Poseidon attached to the “Tridents” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 26 receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker. (Patrol Squadron 26 Public Affairs Office)

The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is an aircraft that is designed to search, locate, and rescue both people and ships. This new design will be used for military operations, overseas disaster relief, and SAR missions.

The aircraft features an open architecture platform for system integration. This means that the aircraft will be able to keep up with technological advances in the future. For example, this aircraft is capable of using internet-based data services to obtain information needed to complete or expand its mission. An open architecture platform can be used to obtain information reliably because it has the ability to access the internet and then update itself while airborne.

It will also serve as a deadly sub-hunter. Armed with long-range anti-ship missiles it will also be an effective maritime strike aircraft.

The P-8 Poseidon is poised to become a game-changer.

(This article has been updated to correct an error about China operating the P-8)