Plane spotters and aviation workers around Dallas Love Field Airport are always on the lookout for new aircraft. Last week SevenMikeCharlie took to Reddit to note a unique military arrival. "I created this post because I recently saw a new P-8 Poseidon arrive at Love Field," he wrote, sparking a conversation among readers about the presence of the Navy's newest surveillance aircraft in North Texas.
Boeing builds the 129-foot warplane on the frame of its civilian 737, but it's been specially modified for its military mission. Some Reddit posters say the jets take off from runway 13L; others say the flights occur mostly at night. Some wags joked that the submarine-hunting aircraft were looking for enemies in Bachman Lake; others surmised they are dispersing mind-altering chemtrails.
You might need to be an airplane geek to realize it, but this development means a new, game-changing military radar is being tested in our backyard.
Other, more grounded posts came from the airport worker's perspective. "The P-8 comes in for short periods, over the past few months," one wrote. "We can't get pictures of it from the ramp. If they see you they'll come ask for the photos, according to a coworker that's been here for years."
So could these observers be correct? Turns out, the Navy confirmed to the Observer, they are.
"The Navy continues integration and testing of the Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS), designated APS-154, aboard P-8A Poseidon aircraft based at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland and Dallas Love Field," Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) disclosed in an email.
So what are $220 million Navy planes with cutting-edge radar doing in Dallas? It turns out the Pentagon has been flying Navy warplanes with classified sensors in them from Love Field since the 1970s, and this is likely a continuation of that work.
An Aviation Week article from March 8, 1999, was the first to reveal that "the U.S. Navy has been operating two small squadrons of what appear to be innocuous P-3 patrol aircraft but in fact are state-of-the-art sentinels packed with a multitude of classified sensors."
The Orion is a propeller-driven warplane that can track targets in the air and on the water's surface, but it's particularly useful at hunting submarines. It has a protrusion in the tail that can detect the magnetic signature of a submerged vessel. It can also drop sonobuoys (expendable sonar sensors) to locate subs and depth charges to sink them.
The article noted that the secret P-3s carry "the most sophisticated optical, electronic, infrared and chemical reconnaissance equipment, probably installed at facilities in Garland and Greenville, Texas, formerly operated by E-Systems, now operated by Raytheon." The radar in question, it became public years later, was the Littoral Surveillance Radar System (also known by its less cool, official designation, the AN/APS-149.)
Since the P-3 Orion is being replaced by the P-8A Poseidon, and that airplane is the intended recipient of new radar, the appearance of the jet in Dallas is not that weird.
P-3 Orions sporting long, rectangular radomes under their bellies have been spotted at Love Field for years. The Navy always said the LSRS would migrate to the P-8A Poseidon — the long, slender antenna housed in that rectangular box is even sized for a larger jet.
So it's not far-fetched when SevenMikeCharlie (who did not return request for comment) notes that the P-8 he saw had "the same gondola or canoe under the fuselage that the Orions have."
That packaging may look familiar but is housing something new that Raytheon is working on: A classified radar called the AN/APS-154, developed under a classified program called the Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS). "Testing at these locations takes advantage of designated test squadrons and proximity to contractors supporting AAS," NAVAIR said of Texas and Maryland bases in their emailed statement.
The U.S. Navy awarded a multi-year contract to Raytheon to begin development of the AAS in 2009. "This is a major leap in technology," Tim Carey, vice president for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, said at the time.
The AAS radar's trick is combining returns from double-sided, electronically scanned active-array radar and synthetic-aperture radar. Put in English, the system can create high-resolution images from radar returns and can track moving targets at sea, on land and along shorelines at the same time. Powerful radar can also be used to jam enemy hardware, making the airplane a possible weapon of what the Pentagon calls "electronic warfare."
The Navy publicly confirmed last year that the P-8As were flying around Maryland with the new AAS radar on board, and they've been more recently spotted (and photographed) in Boeing's hometown of Seattle. Now some of the testing has moved to Love Field, to where Raytheon's AAS work is being done.
Raytheon declined to comment, but it's clear the company still runs this cutting-edge radar program from North Texas. Just last month, the company posted a job opportunity in Dallas for advanced airborne systems program director. The candidate should have "radar expertise" and "Top Secret Clearance with the ability to obtain special access."
Raytheon really loves this radar. You can tell because the company is offering it to every large aerospace firm that is competing to build a next generation airplane to be its Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS.) This is one of those big deal procurements and everyone in the defense aviation business wants a piece.
In late March, Raytheon won a $60 million contract to develop a radar for JSTARS, competing against Northrop Grumman (which got $70 million.) The AAS work, expected to be complete by 2017, will certainly be Raytheon's foundation for the competition a year later.
The U.S. Air Force contract to start replacing the current fleet of JSTARS will probably come in early 2018. No matter who wins — Boeing, Gulfstream or a Lockheed/Bombardier team — Raytheon is ready to supply the aircraft with its eyes. There's always a chance that the JSTARS program will be cut back or canceled in favor of unmanned aerial vehicles, but everything that flies these missions would need radar.
So expect more Poseidon sightings at Love Field in the short term, and more spooky conspiracies in the future if Raytheon wins and the new airplanes start flying.