A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon Has Carried Out An Unusual ISR Mission Off Libya Recently

The track of the P-8 off Libya. (Image credit: Skyvector/@Fireflying11)

The American aircraft has rarely been tracked off North Africa.

We have been observing U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon flying in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions for years. The American aircraft, that launch from Sigonella airbase, in Sicily, Italy, can regularly be tracked online by means of ADS-B/Mode-S as they are on the hunt for Russian submarines, accompany a Carrier Strike Group operating in the the Mediterranean Sea, perform instrumental approach at Italian airports for training purposes; and, more frequently, operate off Syria or Crimea during ISR missions.

On May 26, 2020, a USN Poseidon flying off Syria was intercepted by two Russian Su-35s that “flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner while intercepting the P-8.” The American aircraft was operating well outside the Syrian airspace but most probably keeping an eye on Hmeimim, the base that hosts the Russian Air Force contingent, where MiG-29s and Su-24s had stopped over on their way to Libya. As already explained, it is quite likely that the “unsafe” intercept was carried out as the P-8 was observing the residual movements of the Russian jets on delivery to Libya via Syria. In fact, between May 18 and 19 (believed to be the window of transit of the Russian jets) as many as 4x P-8As from Sigonella, Italy; 2x EP-3E ARIES from Souda Bay, Greece; 2x MQ-9 Reapers from Sigonella; and 2x U-2s from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, were logged around Syria while collecting imagery and data that was used to support U.S. Africa Command claim that at least 14 Russian fighter jets were deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground in Libya.

Interestingly, a few days later a USN Poseidon flew a rather unusual mission tracked once again by our friend Arjen Peters: between May 28 and 29, a P-8A from Sigonella operated at high altitude off the northern coast of Libya between Tripoli and Misrata, flying racetracks quite similar to those we have observed in the eastern Med off Syria.

The track of the P-8 off Libya. (Image credit: Skyvector/@Fireflying11)

According to Arjen, while other American spyplanes are tracked every now and then south of Malta well inside the Tripoli FIR (Flight Information Region), this was the first time a P-8 operated so close to Libya and, while we can’t rule out the possibility the mission was completely unrelated to the deployment, there are also chances that the presence of the Poseidon in an area where this kind of aircraft has never (or rarely) operated was connected to the transfer of the Russian aircraft few days before.

However, it must also be remembered that the situation in Libya is pretty dynamic and there are other things that may explain the American interest in what happens in the country (such as the alleged Iranian support to Haftar forces or the ties of the LNA leader with Venezuela).

And there are also a lot of signals along the Libyan coastline the U.S. aircraft (not only the P-8) might want to investigate…..

Generally speaking, the United States has publically stated that it is “proud to partner with the legitimate, UN-recognized government of Libya, the GNA, and all those who are prepared to protect freedom and peace.” Nevertheless it also continues to operate flights to airports controlled by both sides of the conflict. Notoriously is the direct Andrews AFB to Benghazi flight of the C-17 registration 09-9205 on April 15, 2020, as RCH223. This unique occasion was captured above mainland UK while the aircraft was being refueled in the air by Mildenhall KC-135s.

Similarly, C-17s from Ramstein Air Base in Germany are known to also frequently visit Mitiga International Airport near Tripoli. More recently, such a flight was captured on tracking websites that, after landing at Mitiga, continued its journey towards Ankara in Turkey.

The exact nature of these flights remains unknown.

Back to the P-8, whatever its mission on the night between May 28 and 29, it’s worth remembering that U.S. Navy P-8As are much more than “just” MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft). They carry a wide array of sensors that give the aircraft the ability to operate in the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) battlespace. As we have already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist, the P-8 are multi-mission platforms that can gather valuable intelligence using a wide array of sensors. Among these, an Advanced Airborne Sensor (a dual-sided AESA radar that can offer 360-degree scanning on targets on land or coastal areas, and which has potential applications as a jamming or even cyberwarfare platform according to Northrop Grumman); an APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar; an MX-20 electro-optical/infrared turret for shorter-range search; and an ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, able to geo-locate and track enemy radar emitters. Moreover, all sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is then shared over both military standard and internet protocol data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces.

In that respect, the P-8A Poseidon represents a huge leap forward if compared to the P-3 Orion. For instance, the externally mounted AP/ANY-10 MTI imaging radar system (upgrade from the P-3’s Littoral Surveillance Radar System – LSRS), adds both an overland and maritime MTI capability approaching the fidelity provided by the US Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The significant difference with the more modern P-3s is, in particular, in the P-8’s ability to rapidly exchange and share information internally among the crew and externally among joint partners.

No other P-8 mission was exposed by the OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) community after the May 28-29 mission.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.