A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft launched out of Long Beach Airport this evening and set up shop in some of the busiest airspace in the United States—20,000 feet over Downtown Los Angeles. The P-8 has flown continuous circles roughly 15 miles in diameter for three hours now over the Southern California metropolis.
Our friend and master airplane tracker @aircraftspots first posted about the peculiar flight. The militarized 737 derivative, callsign TIGER14, took off from Long Beach Airport just before 6pm local time and is still tracing the same precise orbit around downtown Los Angeles.
The P-8 is primarily known for its anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare, and sea control roles, but the reality is that it’s cutting edge mission systems are capable of quite a bit more than that. The aircraft is equipped with electronic surveillance systems capable of classifying and geolocating enemy emissions, such as those from air defense systems and enemy communications nodes. It can also intercept communications and work as a communications relay.
In addition, the P-8 is equipped with a very powerful Wescam MX-20HD electro-optical turret that is capable of capturing high definition moving video of surface targets far below its flightpath and it can stream that video to users around the globe if need be. This is all in addition to its traditional maritime patrol systems as the P-8 was built to replace the venerable turboprop-powered P-3 Orion. You can read all about what it’s like to fly the P-8 on real-world missions in this past feature of ours.
P-8A and P-3C over NAS Pax River.
Other capabilities can be fitted to the P-8 for special missions, including the incredibly capable Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS), also known as the Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS), that is bolted on to the lower forward fuselage of the aircraft. You can read all about this system here. Other modular surveillance payloads remain undisclosed, but an advanced communications intelligence system has been spotted bolted below the aircraft’s chin. But thanks to a local aviation photographer who captured the P-8 departing Long Beach on its mission, we know none of these systems are installed on the aircraft in question.
Making things even odder, the weather in the area is somewhat dismal right now, so it’s not like conditions are ideal for certain types of surveillance missions. Even the airport the P-8 launched out of is odd. Why would it use Long Beach instead of Naval Air Station Point Mugu to the north or Naval Air Station North Island to the south?
So the big question is, what is this aircraft, which is most at home operating over water, doing making precise circles at 20,000 feet over Los Angeles? We have seen other, far more shadowy military aircraft execute similar missions, but not the P-8. The truth is that there is no way to say for sure at this time, but it is likely training to support operations in dense urban areas. This is where the Pentagon sees wars being fought in the future and special operations forces, in particular, have to train in real cities to get critical experience on the challenges they will face when fighting in such a complex environment. This often results in everything from high interest and to panic from the uninformed inhabitants of the area. You can read all about this training, and the stir among the public it usually causes, in this past article of ours.
There has been a large special operations exercise ongoing throughout Southern California with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, more widely known as the Night Stalkers, descending on the area with their tricked-out helicopters. This P-8 could be providing overwatch, communications relay, and electronic surveillance duties for training occurring in the metropolis below. It’s also possible that the P-8 is executing a training or test flight on its own, but that does seem far less plausible as we really haven’t seen this type of aircraft execute similar missions in the past.
We will reach out to the Navy tomorrow to see if they have any comment, but for now, the reason behind this odd flight remains a mystery.
UPDATE: 10:30pm PST—
Just as we thought, this mission was in direct support of an ongoing special operations exercise in Southern California dubbed Emerald Warrior/Emerald Trident. Below is the official release, that was released either moments before or shortly after the helicopter raiding exercises in the downtown area began. This is all too regular a custom when 160th SOAR is in town for urban warfare training.
Video of the helicopters in action is already hitting the web. Here we see a standard quartet of MH-6 Little Birds that is followed by a lone MH-60. These aircraft will be landing on ledges of high rises throughout the city and dropping off and picking up special operators. Once again, you can read all about this training and seen videos of it from multiple events across the U.S. in this past piece of ours.
UPDATE: 10:45pm PST—
More video of the 160th in action over the City of Angels:
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