Swooping down to 500 feet over the western Pacific, Cmdr. Bill Pennington pilots his U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft toward an unidentified vessel off southern Japan.
In the back of the plane, a heavily modified Boeing 737, the crew homes in on the vessel using a barrage of surveillance equipment, including radar, GPS and infrared cameras.
Further down the fuselage stand rows of tube-shaped sonar buoys that the crew can catapult into the sea and that float for up to eight hours as they track objects underwater.
This is a dummy run: Today’s target is a Singaporean container ship, and the P-8 roars by without dropping the buoys. But the aircraft is designed to hunt a far more elusive, and potentially dangerous, quarry: Chinese submarines.
It is one of six P-8 jets the U.S. has sent to its Kadena air base in Okinawa since December as part of its strategy of “rebalancing” toward Asia, deploying more military and diplomatic resources to the region in response to China’s growing firepower and assertiveness.
Okinawa is integral to that strategy because it flanks the East China Sea site of a bitter territorial dispute between China and Japan. And it houses the closest U.S. base to the South China Sea, where China’s maritime claims overlap with those of the Philippines, another U.S. ally.
Okinawa also sits next to one of the main chokepoints, the Miyako Strait, that U.S. officials say Chinese subs have used in recent years to enter the Pacific. “If we have history, if there’s a trend of them getting from point A to point B, then we’ll exploit that,” says Cmdr. Pennington. He calls the P-8 a “game-changer,” despite some criticism in the U.S. of the $34 billion the Pentagon is spending on developing and buying the planes.
The jet is designed to replace the old propeller-driven P-3 Orions in Okinawa that were built to hunt Soviet subs and have been flying since the 1960s. The P-8 can drop and monitor up to 64 “sonobuoys,” twice the P-3’s capacity.