The Electronic Storm

June 1, 1991

Supremacy in electronic warfare from start to finish was a big reason–maybe the biggest reason–for the stunning success of the allied coalition’s air campaign against Iraq. EW, waged in every imaginable way, enabled allied air forces to confound Iraqi air defenses throughout the six-week war. It cleared the way for allied aircraft and protected them to near-perfection.

US Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Homer, architect of the allied air campaign, gave EW great credit for its triumphant outcome. In an interview with AIR FORCE Magazine [see p. 571] at his headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Central Air Forces Commander in Chief was asked to appraise the “results of your electronic countermeasures” (ECM).

He replied, “I would have to say it’s one of the highlights of the war, especially if you look at the number of sorties we flew and the intensity of the air defenses.”

The CENTAF CINC noted that “our losses to surface-to-air missiles were something like ten planes ,” even though the enemy “fired thousands and thousands of surface-to-air missiles.” This, he said, “would tell you automatically that the combination of electronic countermeasures and the Wild Weasel operation was certainly effective.

“In fact,” he continued, “the only kills [the enemy] got were probably flukes. We know of many cases where they just shot the missiles in the air. In one case, they spun one off, and it hit an airplane. The airplane got back okay, but [with] some holes in it.”

Countermeasures were only part of allied air forces’ electromagnetic arsenals. Led by USAF, those air forces used just about every conceivable electronic asset in the fight. Iraqi air defenses and communications were crushed or rendered confused and chaotic by jamming, decoys, and attacks with missiles and bombs.

Air Force F-117A Stealth fighters, exemplars of contemporary electronic combat, were first to hit Iraqi air defense radars, which never saw them coming. Then, surging through the radar gaps opened up by the F-117As, came wave after wave of allied “strike packages” spearheaded by USAF’s nonstealthy Wild Weasels and fighter-bombers.

The F-117As showed the world, to say nothing of Iraq, that modern electronic warfare relies as much on mystifying enemy radars as it does on disrupting and destroying them.

At the height of Operation Desert Storm, Brig. Gen. Richard B. Myers, Tactical Air Command’s deputy chief of staff for Requirements, described “the entire spectrum of electronic combat that we try to defeat -from enemy detection through identification, acquisition, whatever kind of track mechanism, missile launch, guidance, and then, eventually [missile] fuzing.”

Addressing an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Fla., General Myers went on to explain that “our electronic combat is tasked to work with parts of that spectrum in various ways,” from the EF-111 standoff jammer “against the front end of [enemy] detection and identification” radars to “systems hanging on our [individual] aircraft that work on the other end of the spectrum [against enemy] missile guidance and fuzing.”

He declared, “Overlaying all of that, in addition to those systems, is stealth.”

Just in Time

Aside from the F-117A Stealth fighters, there was nothing especially exotic about the ECM equipment that made it possible for Air Force fighters and bombers to survive the war in such remarkable numbers. Some of that equipment showed up just in time, though, and its fortuitous availability for combat is now regarded as a tribute to EW acquisition as practiced by the Air Force in recent years.

Desert Storm’s spectacular results are seen as vindication of the Air Force’s EW acquisition community. It had come under fire in recent years for failures of several key EW systems in development or in operation. Desert Storm showed the other side of the story-the successes.

In the opinion of Air Force Col. Robert Walsh, a top EW official in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Desert Storm demonstrated under difficult circumstances that “our EW systems are better than we ever expected them to be. We knew they were good, but we couldn’t prove it in a court of law. Desert Storm was our confirmation.”

In his interview with AIR FORCE, General Horner described allied EW assets and their employment in Desert Storm as follows:

• Countermeasures pods on air-planes to “provide terminal protection” by jamming enemy missile-guidance radars and misleading them with chaff and by shooting off flares to fool heat-seeking missiles.

• Air Force F-4Gs and Navy F/A-18s in the Wild Weasel role tiring high-speed antiradiation missiles (HARMS) at enemy ground radars, making it dangerous for their operators to keep them turned on long enough to “put [air target] information into the missile guidance system and guide the missile to the target.”

Up against Wild Weasels, an enemy radar operator knows all too well that “if he stays on longer than a few seconds, he dies,” the General declared. “What he has to do is like shooting a rifle by closing his eyes and blinking them open. That was nearly impossible.”

• Area-jamming aircraft “like the Air Force EF-111 and the Navy EA-6B, which pour electrons into [the enemy’s] target-acquisition radars so he just doesn’t know where you’re coming from.” This technique cloaks the attacking aircraft and has the effect of making all of them stealthy, whether or not they are built that way.

Allied electronic combat involved other key elements as well. General Myers noted, for example, the vital role of the Air Force’s EC-130 Compass Call aircraft in disrupting Iraqi military communications at strategic and tactical levels.

“We have seen what technology can do over there in terms of weapons,” he told his AFA symposium audience. “Some of that makes for good video. . . . What we don’t see are the technologies that are enabling us to use those smart weapons.” Those technologies do their stuff in “the mostly invisible world of electronic combat,” the General said. “I can guarantee you that Iraq understands electronic combat and has a very real and very intense defense.” He noted that ECM suites on all Air Force aircraft were “working very, very well” under tire.

Who would have believed it? Only a few years ago, the Air Force was in a funk about electronic warfare. Big problems plagued several key programs in development or in operation, such as the defensive avionics suite aboard the B-1B bomber, the airborne self-protection jammer (ASPJ), the upgrade of the area-jamming gear aboard the EF-111, and an “advanced capability” jamming pod for a wide variety of aircraft.

Disaster Area

Beset by such failures, top uniformed and civilian leaders in the Air Force’s operational and acquisition communities called EW a disaster area for the service. Much of the blame was laid on the EW acquisition strategy conceived by the Defense Department in the name of all the services in the early 1980s. That strategy was criticized for having overreached itself in setting unrealistic expectations for excessively capable EW systems. It was sound in other respects, though, and this became apparent in the Gulf War. The EW strategy had been largely pegged to pushing new EW systems through development and into production much more quickly and efficiently than had been the norm. It put a premium on “quick reaction” development of jammers and warning systems for a wide range of combat aircraft.

Several such systems did their stuff in Desert Storm and helped mightily to save the day. Thanks to the EW acquisition game plan, some had come through several years of development and production just in time to be installed on Air Force fighters deployed to the Gulf. The timing was uncanny. By all accounts, the new systems made a big difference once the shooting started.

One was the ALQ-184 ECM pod. The Air Force contracted with Raytheon in 1982 to develop it for a wide range of aircraft. A problem with one part of the system cropped up during operational testing, which was not completed to the Air Force’s full satisfaction until near the end of last year.

Meanwhile, the Air Force made a decision that would turn out to have been opportune indeed. Convinced that the problem could and would be fixed, USAF put the ALQ-184 system into low-rate production almost two years before the testing would run its course. As a result, a goodly number of Air Force fighters were able to go to war with ALQ-184 pods slung underneath.

The ALQ-184 did a great job of bamboozling enemy radar-guided missiles. It gets much of the credit for the Air Force’s astonishingly low losses.

The ALQ-184 story makes a telling point: Had the Air Force been purist about putting off production until testing was all done, the ALQ-184 would have missed the war, with sorry consequences, in all likelihood, for at least some Air Force fighters that carried it into combat. Production would not even have begun until last January, just about the time that those very fighters first came under fire over Iraq and Kuwait. Why did the Air Force conclude that there was no risk in going to war with ECM pods still being tested

Because, in effect, the testing was tougher on the pod than the war was expected to be.

The problem discovered during operational testing of the ALQ-184 was caused by a single part. The Air Force decided that the system did not need that part in order to do good work in the air war around the Gulf.

Colonel Walsh describes the part as “an auxiliary receiver that gives the system an increased capability against specific threats.” Those threats “were irrelevant to Desert Storm,” and, in any case, “the auxiliary receiver would not have been installed” in the ALQ-184 pods that were deployed to the Gulf.

ALQ-184 pods, each costing about $900,000, will eventually replace Westinghouse ALQ-119 pods aboard a wide range of Air Force fighter and attack aircraft. The ALQ-119 did yeoman work for many years but is based on outdated ECM technology of the 1970s and has seen its day. The ALQ-184 outperforms and outlasts it by far. All ALQ-119s in the inventory are now being transformed into ALQ-184s.

Tough Pod

The ALQ-184 has shown its toughness too. It tested out at eighty hours mean time between failures (MTBF) in the field and actually did a little better than that under the heavy stress of combat sorties galore around the Gulf. The best the ALQ-119 could ever manage by way of reliability was twenty hours MTBF.

Colonel Walsh claims that the ALQ-184’s performance, reliability, and maintainability are “all very important in terms of our having a highly deployable Air Force,” one that will remain capable of fulfilling USAF’s “Global Reach, Global Power” responsibilities. He also predicts that the system “will get even better over time” in all respects.

The ALQ-135, an internal jammer that Northrop began developing for the Air Force in 1983, also sprang from the Pentagon’s EW acquisition strategy and performed for USAF on short notice in Desert Storm. It had been installed in the squadron of F-15C air-superiority fighters from the 33d Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Fla., in plenty of time for that squadron to go into combat-and claim the lion’s share of all Air Force air-to-air victories– in Desert Storm.

The most up-to-date models of the ALQ-135 jammers did not emerge from production and go into operational service until last June. Even as Iraq invaded Kuwait less than two months later, those jammers were being installed on F-15Es of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C.

Two squadrons of Air Force F-15Es went to war in Desert Storm. They belonged to the 4th TFW, and they racked up big scores against all sorts of targets all over Iraq and Kuwait. They were also, and hardly by chance, the very F-15Es equipped with upgraded ALQ-135s. Through days and nights of seemingly endless sorties, only one was shot down, most likely by a lucky shot from an antiaircraft gun.

The EW success story in Desert Storm was not about new systems alone. Most Air Force planes in that war carried older-generation, external ECM systems, such as the Westinghouse ALQ-119s and ALQ-131s. All did the job.

Each plane went to war with the pods it already had. As a rule, ECM systems were not switched around at the last minute. “We don’t just take the best pods we have and move them around from plane to plane or base to base,” Colonel Walsh explains. “Aircrews aren’t used to flying with them. Maintenance crews aren’t used to fixing them.”

Operation Desert Storm also showed that the Air Force had made sound decisions through the 1980s in developing new radar warning receivers for its top-line fighters. One such RWR, the Loral ALR-56C, was carried by all F-15Es and by many F-15Cs used in that war. Other F-15Cs were equipped with the first model of the line, the ALR-56A.

The solid performance of its ECM systems under fire does not mean that the Air Force can leave well enough alone. Improvements are always in order. Says Colonel Walsh, “We have to keep looking into the future, judging what the threat environment is going to be, and deciding which upgrades we will need to make to counter it.”

Upgrading ECM is much easier than it used to be, thanks to reprogrammable computers. Most of the Air Force’s modern radar warning receivers embody such computers. If the planes carrying those RWRs run up against new or different radars and missiles, or if intelligence sources see such menaces in the making, squadrons can reprogram their RWRs with new software that will attune them to the changing threats.

Air Force ECM software specialists did that sort of thing on nearly all ECM systems throughout Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As combat aircrews and intelligence analysts caught on to new or modified characteristics of enemy missile radars, the relevant ECM components were reprogrammed, flight tested, and installed on flight lines. What this demonstrates, declares Colonel Walsh, is that “we have truly made monumental gains in our ability to reconfigure EW systems, which gives us great flexibility.”

Not By Chance

The Air Force’s turn to reprogrammable RWRs and other ECM systems was not happenstance. “The Air Force made the decision to do it–to make the necessary investment–as part of the [EW] acquisition strategy of the early 1980s,” Colonel Walsh explains. “There was no doubt at the time that it would become increasingly difficult to rebuild and reinsert hardware components of computers to adjust to new threats and that software would have to be the answer.”

It also appears easier to keep readily reprogrammable ECM systems in shape to stay the course of combat. TAC’s General Myers told the AFA symposium in Orlando that the trend to digital programmable computers through the 1980s “helped us a lot” in maintaining ECM systems. He said, for example, that in 1980, it took two and a half hours to reprogram an ECM pod. The pod had to be removed from the airplane, taken to the ECM “pod shop,” reprogrammed there, and put back on the plane.

“Today we can do that same job in seven minutes because we can do it on the aircraft,” General Myers declared.

With radar warning systems seemingly well in hand, the Air Force has begun attending to the development of missile warning systems to complement the RWRs on combat aircraft. An RWR is sensitive only to the approach of a radar-guided missile. An MWS, on the other hand, is designed to detect all kinds of missiles, including those using infrared and electro-optical sensors to seek their prey.

Missile warning systems are currently carried by limited numbers and types of Air Force aircraft, including B-52 and F-111 bombers and special operations planes, such as fixed-wing gunships. Now USAF is looking at missile warning systems for such planes as C-5, C-141, and C-130 transports and F-15 and F-16 fighters and attack aircraft. The F-111 may need a new MWS.

The Air Force is feeling pressure at the Defense Department level to get cracking on an MWS for the F-16. Last year, the Defense Acquisition Board approved USAF’s controversial, much-debated plan to assign the F/A-16 to the close air support (CAS) mission as successor to the A-10 and assign it to the longer- range battlefield air interdiction (BAI) mission as well.

There was one caveat. The DAB ruled that the Air Force must put a missile warning system on the lighter. The Air Force moved to comply.

Its Tactical Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB, Fla., examined the technology of missile warning systems already on “heavies,” with an eye to its suitability for fighters. MWS contractors converged on Eglin for flight tests of their technologies on drones.

The testing resulted in “fairly high confidence that the technology was there and ready to make the transition to the fighter force,” and “gave us just what we were looking for,” General Myers said.

He predicted that more such expeditious testing of ECM technologies and systems will take place in the future. Why? Because the Air Force is intent on “streamlining” its ECM acquisition process, and “rapid prototyping and flight demos” like those at Eglin are in keeping with that.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is assured of having more than enough individual ECM systems for its tighter force, he said, “not because we are buying more ECM pods or radar warning receivers, but because our force structure is drawing down, and we are able to take pods that were flying on A-7s for example, and move them to the [fighters] that are left.”

General Myers emphasized that the Air Force will continue to “need ECM systems that are effective, timely, and affordable–a blend of stand-alone, bolt-on systems and fully integrated [internal] systems”–plus a continuation of top-notch training in their use. Otherwise, he warned, the impressive record racked up in Desert Storm electronic warfare may not be duplicated the next time around.