The fake numbers are part of the planes’ disguises. Special Projects Patrol Squadron Two, which operates the mysterious P-8s, takes pains to blend in with regular forces. To most people, the Florida-based unit’s aircraft look like the roughly 100 normal P-8s that fly with the U.S. fleet’s regular patrol squadrons.
Look closer. These twin-jet P-8s are special. The unusual antennae apparently are part of elaborate radio-eavesdropping gear that, combined with other systems, allow the VPU-2 P-8s to pinpoint enemy forces and record their communications.
Dutch aviation magazine Scramble was the first to report the VPU-2 sightings.
Jacksonville-based VPU-2 was born in tragedy. On April 14, 1969, a Navy EC-121M communications-intelligence plane flew from Japan to a position over the Sea of Japan between North Korea and the Soviet Union.
The four-engine EC-121, belonging to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, flew a racetrack pattern in international air space. The 31-person crew included linguists and cryptologists whose job it was to listen in on radio traffic between North Korea and the USSR.
EC-121s had flow hundreds of similar sorties without incident, so the Navy wasn’t particularly worried. For reasons historians never have sussed out, on that day the North Koreans sortied MiG-21s to intercept the EC-121. The fighters shot down the lumbering spy plane, killing everyone on board.
The shoot-down sparked a major crisis and compelled the Navy to reorganize its aerial COMINT operations. The fleet established new, secretive detachments flying COMINT planes wearing the disguises of normal patrol aircraft. Navy planners hoped the incognito spy planes would attract less attention than the EC-121 did.
In 1982 the Navy consolidated the special COMINT detachments into two VPU squadrons together operating around eight aircraft. VPU-1 disbanded in 2012, leaving VPU-2 as the fleet’s sole special-projects squadron.
Where the Navy’s regular patrol and intelligence squadrons report to regional and fleet commanders, VPU-2 reportedly works for national intelligence entities such as the U.S. National Security Agency.
VPU-2 for decades flew propeller-driven P-3s. The P-3s were distinguishable from regular P-3s by their unique antennae arrangements and various bulges and windows on their fuselages that weren’t evident on non-COMINT planes.
The antennae apparently were associated with at least two main COMINT systems. The AN/ALR-52 multi-band instantaneous frequency measurement receiver helps its operators to characterize the carrier waves that support radio signals. The ALR-60 lets the operators tap into the radio signals themselves.
Other antennae connect to the COMINT plane’s own communications systems, including high-frequency and satellite radios. Generally speaking, the antennae on the bottom of a COMINT plane are for spying on the enemy. The antennae on top of the plane are for relaying data to national authorities.
Plane-spotters kept track of the VPU P-3s by looking for their unique antennae and the ever-shifting bureau numbers on their fuselages and tails. Veterans of the special-projects units have recalled the laborious process of frequently repainting their planes.
The Navy began retiring its weary P-3s in the early 2000s. The VPU P-3s were some of the last to go. With almost no fanfare, the fleet began modifying P-8s to carry COMINT equipment. One of the VPU P-8s kept its transponder on as it flew over Fort Campbell, Kentucky in January—apparently while training with Special Operations Forces on the ground.
It’s not clear how many P-8s VPU-2 eventually will possess. Probably more than four and fewer than 10. It appears the Navy borrowed one VPU bureau number from an unfinished P-8 fuselage that fell off a train during shipping and fell into the Clark Fork River in Montana in 2014.
For all their secrecy, it’s not hard to guess where the VPU P-8s will be spending much of their time. VPU-2 was born in the dangerous air space of the Western Pacific. The squadron undoubtedly still flies those deadly skies.