Tuesday, December 1, 2015

U.S. Task Force 72 commander makes sure intell keeps flowing

P-8a Poseidon on patrol

P-3 Orion and P-8a Poseidon flights in Western Pacific are the key.

30 November 2015
As tension increases between the U.S. and China in the Western Pacific, proper intelligence is becoming increasingly important, and some of the most detailed, accurate and timely data and other information about that realm is the result of continued flights by P-3 Orion and P-8A Poseidon flights. As the commander of Task Force 72 aircraft and operations for the 7th Fleet area of operations, Capt. Richard Prest has to make sure the intel keeps flowing. Prest discusses some of those operations with Naval Editor Michael Fabey.
Aviation Week Intelligence Network: What is the importance of the P-8A Poseidon for the U.S. strategy in the region?
Prest: The P-8As will support the rebalance through its enhanced capabilities over the P-3. The P-3 has been a workhorse for decades, but the P-8 will bring new and advanced capability across the full range of maritime, patrol, and reconnaissance mission areas. The aircraft and crews are performing very well, and there’s a lot to be excited about. We operate around the clock in international airspace in accordance with international laws to enhance relationships with regional partners and allies.
AWIN: What is the number of aircraft available for such patrols?
Prest: The number shifts, depending on global force management, which is determined by Navy leadership. Every six months we get a new allocation of aircraft in theater. While fairly steady, it varies based on any number of variables – especially as we continue our transition from the P-3 aircraft to the P-8A Poseidon.
AWIN: With everything going on in the region, are you expecting to get more P-8As?
Prest: The next cycle is in the spring. We’re going to see an increase in aircraft. But it’s really about the capability – not the airframe numbers.
AWIN: How many P-8As are expected in the region in the future?
Prest: The number of the end state deployed is still to be determined, based on operational requirements within the theater. That’s constantly being re-evaluated and refined as we continue to build P-8 inventory and transition from the legacy P-3 aircraft.
AWIN: How far-ranging are the missions?
Prest: Depending on our base of operations, our crews can go as far north as the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Pacific, as far west as the Indian Ocean, and as far south as Australia. Mission profiles can last anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending on the tasking. Sometimes we extend (time) on station, as required. It can be a very dynamic and exciting environment.
AWIN: What do you mean by “dynamic?”
Prest: We can by dynamically re-tasked in flight depending on emerging requirements. We pride ourselves on being operationally agile and flexible. If we are out on a mission to establish ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and a submarine requirement should emerge, we are able to take action on that tasking after coordinating with our headquarters. That’s one of the benefits of our community and the P-8A or P-3 platforms – we have the capability and agility to respond to those emerging operational requirements.
AWIN: How do the missions differ, operationally?
Prest: The missions are very different. The ASW (antisubmarine warfare) mission is very dynamic, very fast-moving and requires a lot of focus from all crewmembers. The ISR, if not our primary tasking, is always going on in the background and also requires a high level of focus. You have to maintain a constant situational awareness of where you are operating the aircraft, especially in places like the Spratlys, Paracels and South China Sea writ large.
It requires keen situational awareness to make sure we maintain our flight profile in international airspace in accordance with international law. Along with anti-submarine warfare and ISR, our other primary mission area is anti-surface warfare. Additionally, our aircraft are well-suited for search-and-rescue and humanitarian assistance disaster relief missions. Leadership often refers to us (the Seventh Fleet) as “911” due to our versatility, responsiveness and range.
AWIN: What are some of the other operational concerns about such flights?
Prest: No specific concerns, but safety of flight is always a priority. On a mission of 10-plus hours, we can’t have the same two pilots in the seats. The crews have three pilots and rotate at hour-and-half intervals to make sure all pilots retain focus. But with other crew positions we don’t have that luxury. At certain times of the mission, such as transit to and from on station areas, certain crewmembers are able to rest, but that has to be tightly managed. There are always tasks on board that have to be done.

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