Towed Decoy Pods Will Protect P-8 Poseidons From Radar-Guided Threats

Electronic warfare pods with ‘little buddy’ decoys will be key for defending the highly-valuable, but vulnerable P-8As.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The US Navy's P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes are one step closer to getting new self-protection pods with towed decoys and other electronic warfare capabilities.
BAE Systems/USN


U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes are one step closer to getting pods loaded with towed decoys, often referred to as 'little buddies,' and other defensive electronic warfare systems. The podded self-protection systems will be especially important for increasing the survivability of the P-8As, which are highly valuable submarine hunting, sea control, and intelligence-gathering platforms, during any future high-end conflict, such as one in the Pacific region against China.

BAE Systems announced earlier today that the Navy had awarded it a $95 million contract for the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of work on "advanced countermeasure pods to protect the P-8A." The company says it has already conducted "successful airworthiness and effectiveness testing" of the pod, the design of which evolved from a rapid prototyping effort back in 2021.

A prototype electronic warfare pod loaded onto a P-8A back in 2021. USN

"We’re working closely with the U.S. Navy to deliver innovative solutions to protect this critical, high-value aircraft," Don Davidson, director of Advanced Compact Electronic Warfare Solutions at BAE Systems, said in a statement in a press release about the P-8A pod contract award. "We quickly prototyped a very capable system using proven technology to defend against air-to-air and surface-to-air guided threats."

Details about the pod's exact capabilities are currently limited, but a towed decoy is a key element of the complete system. The prototype pod tested in 2021 was specifically designed to employ the AN/ALE-55, a decoy of this type from BAE Systems.

The AN/ALE-55, which is already in Navy service on its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, has the ability to jam hostile emitters, including radars on aircraft or on the ground, in order to prevent from locking on. It can also initiate more focused electronic attacks to break an established lock.

A graphic depicting an AN/ALE-55 decoy deployed trailing behind an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. BAE Systems

Trailing behind the deploying aircraft via a fiber optic line, the AN/ALE-55 can also help lure away incoming missiles. The decoy's fiber optic tether also allows it to receive specific commands, including about what kinds of signals to pump out to respond to certain threats, from a central command unit installed on the deploying aircraft.

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In May, BAE Systems received a separate contract from the Navy to develop a new Dual Band Decoy (DBD) that will offer improved capabilities over the AN/ALE-55. Details about DBD's specific capabilities are limited, but the company says its design will enable "higher performance and more capability with reduced size, weight, and power." The DBD could also potentially be integrated into the new self-protection pods for the P-8A in the future.

A rendering of BAE's now-in-development Dual Band Decoy (DBD). BAE Systems

BAE says the self-protection pods for the P-8A will also contain additional electronic warfare and surveillance systems, including to help detect threats. In addition to the towed decoy, the 2021 prototype system included a "small form factor jammer" and "a high-powered amplifier," according to a previous company press release.

The pods also have a "flexible, open architecture design [that] allows [for] rapid and affordable modernization," according to BAE. This could even include the integration of additional capabilities provided by third parties down the line, the company's press release today notes. The pods are not exclusively tied in any way to the P-8A, either, and could be integrated onto other aircraft in the future.

When it comes to the P-8A, the jets already have radar warning receivers arrayed around the aircraft, as well as countermeasures dispensers to launch decoy flares to lure away heat-seeking missiles. The Poseidon also has a very robust electronic support measures (ESM) package built in already that is not only capable of monitoring for threats, but can also employed as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system.

It's also worth noting that the prototype pod design that the Navy tested in 2021 used a shell that was based on the shape of the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile, one of the primary weapons in the P-8A's current arsenal. How the structure of the pod may have evolved in the last three years is unclear, but using an established form factor would help speed up development and testing.

Another view of the prototype electronic warfare pod for the P-8A that the Navy tested in 2021. USN

By all indications, the new production pods for the P-8A will carried on one of the jet's four underwing pylons. This will impact the number of weapons and other stores the aircraft can carry externally.

At the same time, trading one pylon's worth of stores capacity for the added protection that BAE's decoy-toting electronic warfare pod offers could be essential for the survivability of the Boeing 737 airliner-based P-8As in a future high-end conflict. China, in particular, continues to expand the scale and scope of its integrated air defenses, as well as other anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, all of which would limit the freedom of movement of U.S. aircraft, as well as naval and ground assets down below in a future major fight in the Pacific.

A P-8A with our Harpoon anti-ship missiles under its wings. DOD

At the same time, in that same conflict scenario, P-8As would be in high demand, particularly to help hunt for increasingly capable Chinese submarines. The aircraft's range and endurance would also be valuable for sea control, more general maritime surveillance, and ISR support missions across the broad expanses of the Pacific region.

The new pods for the P-8As could be valuable outside of the context of a major conflict in the Pacific, or anywhere else, too. Poseidons already regularly fly peacetime maritime surveillance and ISR sorties in international airspace off the coasts of hostile or potentially hostile countries and are largely defenseless against various aerial threats.

Iran's shooting down of a Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 is a prime example of the broader threat picture that P-8As and their crews also face. Since last October, Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have also shot down multiple U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones further underscoring this reality. Smaller nation states like Iran and non-state actors like the Houthis are only continuing to field new and increasingly dangerous air defense capabilities.

The War Zone highlighted back in 2021 how it was hardly surprising that the Navy was looking at new ways to increase the P-8A's self-protection capabilities and those needs have only grown since then.

The pods for the P-8As also reflect a broader push on the Navy's part to expand the size and scope of its entire electronic warfare ecosystem in the air and down below. This includes powerful new electronic warfare suites for the service's Arleigh Burke class destroyers and other ships, advanced ship-launched flying decoy drones, and additional podded systems that MH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters will carry.

An MH-60R with an AN/ALQ-248 Advanced Off-Board Electronic Warfare pod in the anechoic test chamber at Patuxent River. USN via Lockheed Martin

Though not explicitly mentioned in BAE's press release, it is possible, if not highly plausible that the Navy will look to network the podded systems for the Poseidon to varying degrees with other existing and future capabilities to further increase their capabilities. The service has already been investing heavily in networked distributed electronic warfare capabilities through programs like the secretive Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors (NEMESIS), which you can read more about in this past War Zone feature.

When Navy P-8As might start flying with the new decoy-launching electronic warfare pods is unclear. Regardless, the aircraft have a clear need now for additional self-protection capabilities both to aid them in future major conflicts and help keep them safe during more routine missions.

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