China retrieves US anti-sub device deployed by USAF P-8A aircraft

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The U.S. Navy’s advanced P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft recently deployed a hydroacoustic buoy in the South China Sea. This buoy, designed for submarine detection, has reportedly fallen into Chinese hands.

China’s capture of these sonobuoys—sophisticated acoustic systems that detect underwater activity—raises significant concerns over reverse engineering. The Chinese defense industry is well-known for replicating American technology.

In a video uploaded Wednesday by Yuyuan Tantian, a social media account linked to the state-run China Central Television, what appears to be a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon is seen releasing multiple cylindrical devices into the sea.

One of them

Reports indicate that one of the objects fell into waters near the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, known as Ren’ai Reef in Beijing. This area is currently at the center of a heated territorial dispute between the Philippines and China and was the site of a violent clash between their forces last week.

“Following the incident, the China Coast Guard promptly arrived at the scene to retrieve and inspect the unidentified electronic items by applicable laws and regulations,” stated Yuyuan Tantian.

China retrieves US anti-sub device deployed by USAF P-8A aircraft
Video screenshot

The 40-second video then shifts to show battery labels on an electronic device, identifying Ultra Electronics as the manufacturer. Ultra Electronics is a U.K.-based defense contractor that specializes in producing radars and electronic warfare products, including sonobuoys and electromagnetic interference filters.

How does the sonobuoy work?

Sonobuoys are specialized buoys equipped with acoustic sensors designed to detect submarines. When deployed from aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon, they can be dropped into the ocean to form a network of listening devices that monitor underwater sounds.

China retrieves US anti-sub device deployed by USAF P-8A aircraft
Photo by US Navy / John Collins

There are two main types of sonobuoys: passive and active. Passive sonobuoys listen for sounds emitted by submarines, such as engine noise or the sound of the submarine moving through the water. Active sonobuoys, on the other hand, emit a sound pulse and listen for the echo that bounces back from objects, including submarines.

Once deployed, sonobuoys descend to a predetermined depth using a parachute and then activate their sensors. The data collected by sonobuoys is transmitted back to the P-8 Poseidon via radio signals. The aircraft’s onboard systems then analyze this data to identify and locate potential submarine threats.

What is interest?

US P-8 Poseidon searches for Russian sub 66 miles off Florida
Photo credit: Boeing

Reverse engineering a U.S. sonobuoy captured by China would reveal important details about American anti-submarine warfare [ASW] technology. The sonobuoy’s sensor technology is a key area of interest. By studying these sensors, China could learn about the detection range and sensitivity used by the U.S. Navy.

Another important aspect is how the sonobuoy processes data and communicates with the P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Understanding this could show how fast and efficiently the U.S. Navy analyzes and responds to real-time information.

The power management system is also crucial. By looking at how the sonobuoy is powered and manages its energy, Chinese engineers could improve the endurance and efficiency of their own ASW devices. Finally, reverse engineering the sonobuoy could help uncover any unique software or algorithms used for signal processing and data encryption.

China retrieves US anti-sub device deployed by USAF P-8A aircraft
Photo by Jakoeb VanDahlen

Types of sonobuoys in P-8

It’s hard to verify China’s claims, and even if true, we don’t know which type of sonobuoy was captured. Let’s look at the sonobuoys the USAF P-8 Poseidon usually uses. One key sonobuoy is the AN/SSQ-53F DIFAR. Made by Ultra Electronics, this British device detects submarine sounds and helps locate them with directional data.

Another important tool in the P-8’s arsenal is the AN/SSQ-62E Directional Command Activated Sonobuoy System [DICASS]. Made by Sparton Corporation, an American company, this sonobuoy uses active sonar. It can send out sonar pings and receive echoes, helping pinpoint the location of underwater targets.

The AN/SSQ-101 Air Deployable Active Receiver [ADAR] sonobuoy is also used on the P-8 Poseidon. Developed by Lockheed Martin, another American defense contractor, the AN/SSQ-101 works with other sonobuoys to give a detailed acoustic picture of the underwater world. It’s especially good for long-range detection and tracking. Additionally, the P-8 Poseidon uses the AN/SSQ-125 Multi-Static Active Coherent [MAC] sonobuoy. This high-tech sonobuoy, made by ERAPSCO, helps the aircraft detect quiet submarines better by using multiple sonobuoys to create a networked sonar field.



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