A P-8A Poseidon takes off from Misawa Air Base, April 18, 2022.

A P-8A Poseidon takes off from Misawa Air Base, April 18, 2022. (Juan Sua/U.S. Navy)

In February, “NBC Nightly News” aired a segment about a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon sub hunter aircraft flying over the South China Sea. It was also reported on by CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and many other media outlets. As a former naval officer and defense industry executive, it was fascinating to watch Mission Commander Capt. Will Toraason, who had been a young lieutenant two decades ago when I held his position, ably lead that P-8 mission.

My generation spent much of our naval careers as cold warriors, flying the P-3 Orion aircraft, holding Soviet submarines at risk. The February P-8 Poseidon mission was similar, providing critical intelligence on both sea- and land-based operations of our nation’s strategic competitors. Thankfully, they had the best possible tool for their mission, the P-8 Poseidon. The P-8 is armed with a suite of state-of-the-art sensors to look on and below the surface of the sea. It also carries a formidable array of weapons to be prepared for any contingency.

Today we maneuver in a much less predictable multipolar world, both militarily and geopolitically, rather than the bipolar one we operated in 40 years ago during the Cold War. Russian actions in Ukraine certainly stand out as a stark reminder of the uncertainty of our messy world. Their gray zone tactics, wholesale annexation of Crimea, and annexation of Donbas all pre-empted their full-scale invasion that has led to the tragic morass the U.S. and our allies are in.

On the other side of the world, Chinese incursions, annexation, and building of islands in international waters continues unabated. An increasingly assertive China has failed to join the rules-based international order as many had once hoped, and threatens to upend peace in the Western Pacific through coercive economic and military policy.

While the U.S. Navy still has the world’s most elite submarine fleet, it appears our two most adversarial competitors are joining forces to create their own. They are developing nuclear and diesel electric submarine programs and creating a dangerous alliance that threatens the United States and the world at large.

American leadership must act, and that action includes investing in military equipment designed to counter the specific threat posed by adversarial submarines.

The P-8 Poseidon is the only aircraft in our arsenal able to detect, track and destroy enemy submarines. It provides an unparalleled ability for quick reaction, long range anti-submarine warfare, and intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance required to complete the maritime kill chain and remove undersea and surface threats to our Navy’s operations.

Over the past several years, there has been a debate surrounding the P-8 and its future. In 2020, the American Enterprise Institute published a piece describing the scale of what’s at stake without the P-8, and called into question the decision to retire production of the platform. Specifically, the article made the point that other high-profile programs wouldn’t function at an elite level without the contributions of the P-8 and that “just as the Navy is moving to end P-8 procurement, the submarine threat the plan was meant to deal with is growing.” That was true three years ago and it’s still true.

During my service in the Cold War, we had 24 active and 12 reserve squadrons with over 300 P-3s to hold adversary submarines at risk. Current P-8 force structure is down to 12 active and 2 reserve squadrons with 128 funded aircraft. While the onboard technology is a multi-generational leap, so is that of adversary submarines. U.S. technology closes some of that gap, but the divide is too great. As it stands, the number of aircraft required to complete the missions will not be there when needed.

U.S. history is rife with programs that were terminated at precisely the wrong time, such as the F-22 and C-17 programs. Our government and military leaders cannot let history repeat itself with the P-8 program.

Fred Smith, a retired U.S. Navy captain, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, holds a master’s degree from George Washington University, and served as a federal executive fellow. He is a defense industry expert who previously oversaw the P-8 for Boeing Military Aircraft.

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