Where Next With Electronic Attack?

Oct. 1, 2006

On the Pentagon’s so-called “stoplight” briefing slides—where red is bad, yellow is fair, and green is good—many aspects of the airborne electronic attack mission are a deep, deep red.

The AEA mission—after a decade of turmoil in which plans have been started, stopped, restarted, and halted again—is still being sorted out. In the meantime, the threat has gotten worse. The world has seen a proliferation of new integrated air defense systems, such as Russia’s S-400, with its unprecedented detection and missile ranges and better processing.

In many cases, such systems have wound up in the hands of America’s biggest adversaries.

The purpose of AEA systems is to disrupt or blind enemy air defenses, mainly by pounding them with intense bursts of radar energy. An adversary’s radar screen is bathed in electronic noise and blips that prevent him from knowing for sure which ones are US aircraft and which ones are electronic artifacts or decoys.

Stealth aircraft have been able to slip past adversary radars unseen. However, nonstealthy “legacy” aircraft have to be protected by jamming. Moreover, against the newer threat systems, even stealth aircraft will need protection, Air Force and Navy experts agree.

In August, the Air Force was struggling to reconstruct its AEA plans, which were undone late last year by budget and policy decisions. The Air Force canceled its central AEA program, the B-52 Standoff Jammer, because costs had grown and the program was no longer affordable.

In addition, the Air Force’s share of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System was terminated by top Pentagon leadership, and what was left was given over to the Navy. The Air Force had planned to use J-UCAS for a variety of roles, one of them as a radar jammer loitering directly over enemy air defenses. (See “Washington Watch,” March, p. 12.)

All Fall Down

It is no exaggeration to say that the Air Force AEA roadmap, which was years in the making, virtually collapsed.

After the cuts, Air Force planners went to work almost immediately, trying to rebuild the AEA program and find alternate solutions. However, by mid-August, they had not yet settled on a final workable scheme.

Moreover, they didn’t have their new plan ready in time for inclusion in USAF’s Fiscal 2008 program objective memorandum, the requirements and resources plan that serves as the basis for the next budget request, which was due to the Office of the Secretary of Defense Aug. 15.

Missing that deadline threatens to delay any new start efforts until Fiscal 2009 or later.

Pressure was mounting on the Air Force to define its plan because a top-level Pentagon study that was due in September was supposed to identify options for the joint AEA “system of systems.” The Air Force wanted to have its own plan in place, rationalized against its other requirements, rather than possibly be handed one from higher up. That might require drastic changes elsewhere in the overall USAF budget.

The Air Force faces a hard deadline for bringing on new operational AEA capability. Since 1999, it has been sharing the Navy’s four-seat EA-6B Prowler escort jammer aircraft, but the Prowler fleet begins retiring in 2009, to be replaced by the Navy’s new escort jammer, the EA-18G Growler, a variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet. The Growler has only two seats and is slated to completely replace the EA-6B in 2012.

For some time, plans have called for USAF by then to be out of the Navy’s program and fielding its own system.

The airborne electronic attack business comprises five primary disciplines, each taking the action progressively closer to the target.

The first is standoff jamming. Aircraft loiter outside the range of enemy missiles while sending out powerful waves of long-bandwidth energy at an entire region of enemy territory.

Second comes the use of escort jammers. They go in closer, flying alongside or near strike aircraft during their journey in hostile airspace. These fighter-type aircraft are equipped with pods that generate intense energy to saturate enemy radar receivers and blind them to the exact whereabouts of the US strikers.

Third, the attack aircraft themselves would use either external pods or internal electronic countermeasures systems to generate self-protection jamming as they near the target. New active electronically scanned array radars, or AESAs, have great power and huge potential to do some jamming and precisely identify and locate threat radars. Towed decoys also play in the self-protection ring.

Fourth, “stand-in” AEA comprises any systems designed to defeat enemy radars at practically point-blank range. Flying decoys and drones fit in this mission, which is considered too risky for manned aircraft.

Based on the 2001 analysis of alternatives, the last is relatively new: cyber-attack. The Air Force believes that it can use network attacks to trick enemy radars into turning off or presenting false information to their operators. Gen. John P. Jumper, the recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff, described the basic idea as causing an enemy radar to think it’s a washing machine and go into the rinse cycle.

Basket of Options

By mid-July Air Force planners had delivered to Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the USAF Chief of Staff, a number of AEA options.

The options were “kind of what you’d expect,” said Col. Rick Rankin, head of the electronic and cyber-warfare office of the Air Force’s requirements directorate. “We’re looking at the B-52, we’re looking at the EC-130, and we’re also looking at the F-15E,” Rankin reported.

Moseley killed the B-52 Standoff Jammer last winter because it had become a victim of “mission creep.” In April, Moseley said the SOJ had started out as performing “a very narrow slice” of the SOJ requirement—at a cost of about $1 billion—and ended up weighed down with a myriad of extra missions, driving the cost of the program over $7 billion.

“We couldn’t afford it,” Moseley told a symposium on Capitol Hill in April. He added that the Air Force, hewing to its policy of seeking the “desired effect” rather than concentrating on the platform that creates them, would not prejudge what the replacement system should be.

In August, though, the B-52 SOJ was back in the lineup of AEA solutions but slimmed down considerably. The original plan called for up to 76 B-52s to be equipped with the internal gear necessary for the SOJ mission and 36 sets of 30-foot-long jamming pods—two per airplane—that would be fitted on the outer wings.

Rankin said the B-52 SOJ project could be restored but with fewer aircraft, fewer pods, and reduced capability than the system as it stood when it was canceled.

“The Chief has already told us that it has to be affordable and it has to be smart,” Rankin said. However, the requirement to have at least initial operational capability by 2012 still stands, despite the delays.

The in-service date is not an impossible goal, though, because of technical advancements.

“A year has passed, so some of the technology development that we were concerned about, to put on this platform—the cost of that development has actually gone down,” Rankin noted. The Air Force Research Lab has “come up with some solutions that, a year ago, we didn’t have. So that helps.” He said that Air Combat Command and Air Force Materiel Command were looking at ways to come up with a variant that the service could fill by 2012 that would be affordable during the future years defense program.

Prowler, Growler, and …

Another option being considered is to use the F-15E in the role of escort jammer, not unlike the role performed by the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler and, soon, the EA-18G Growler.

The Air Force contacted the Navy during the summer about sharing the ALQ-99 jamming pods that are now carried by the EA-6B and will also be used by the EA-18G, according to Navy Capt. Steven Kochman, co-lead of the EA-18 program.

Kochman said “there are enough” of the pods that “it might be possible” to let the Air Force use some of them. However, the idea had not been fleshed out with thorough study. The pods cannot simply be hung on a bomb rack and start functioning; the hosting aircraft must be equipped with the processors, displays, and software necessary to operate them.

An industry official familiar with the concept said the cost to outfit F-15Es for the escort jamming mission “would not be trivial.” Boeing did some research on such an idea a few years ago, but it didn’t gain much traction with the Air Force.

The F-15E concept would not be an alternative to the B-52 SOJ, but complementary. Rankin emphasized that “there’s no golden BB” that will solve the AEA mission with a single platform. It is very much a “system of systems” with room for all services to contribute.

Kochman said in a press conference in August that the EA-18G is optimized for the escort jammer role, is not suited for the stand-in mission, and would be ill-used as a standoff system.

“If you can do … escort, you want to do … escort,” Kochman said. A standoff system requires “something with longer persistence; you need an aircraft that’s larger.” The Growler, he said, “doesn’t really have the persistence … [or] as much size and power” as is needed for the standoff role.

At one time, the Air Force considered converting some F-15Cs, many of which will be retired in the coming years, into electronic warfare platforms. However, the only fighter option being seriously looked at by USAF is the F-15E.

Not only is the F-15E newer, with a more modern avionics system, but the presence of a second crew member is considered necessary, Rankin reported.

“You’re talking about a Prowler with four seats going to a Growler with two seats, to [an F-15C] model with one seat: That’s an awful lot to ask of a young captain, to be doing air-to-air intercept and worry about protecting other forces and then also be responsible for electronic attack.”

F-15E crews, by contrast, are accustomed to the penetration mission, the electronic aspect, and the teamwork involved.

Out of Vogue

The Air Force will not consider either a specialized B-52 or F-15E to do the jamming mission. In fact, the term “EB-52,” once the vogue for referring to the SOJ bomber, has been banned because it suggests a capability that is separate from the rest of the force. The reason is that small, specialized capabilities swiftly become low-density, high-demand assets, with all the problems that status entails.

“When you have [a] small fleet … dedicated to a particular type of mission, they have training issues, … logistics issues, … operational concerns, … and they’re [deployed] 200, 300-plus days a year,” Rankin pointed out.

Requirements officials believe the Air Force should “use these things multimission and multiplatform. It just makes more … sense.”

The B-52H equipped with SOJ would still be called a B-52H, Rankin said. “It’s just a matter of how the crews are trained” that would distinguish the jammer versions from the regular models.

The EC-130 Compass Call is a Hercules fitted with special antennas and pods to jam enemy communications. Rankin said the Air Force may study a counter-radar mission for the aircraft, as well. Changes would be made to the massive Spear (special emitter array) pods under the wings, which would be modified with new equipment.

For the standoff mission, the Air Force will continue working with the Navy until 2012 on the EA-6B, doing escort jamming. Air Force crews have been stationed at the Navy’s Whidbey Island, Wash., Prowler base and have been flying with Navy crews since 1999. These airmen—many of whom came from F-15E, B-52, and Compass Call—would likely form the core of a new generation of Air Force airborne electronic attack specialists.

The Navy plans to build 90 EF-18G Growlers to replace the 120 EA-6Bs now in the inventory. The smaller number reflects the fact that the Navy has shrunk the size of its carrier fleet and air wings. The first Growler rolled out at the Boeing plant in St. Louis in August, and Navy managers reported the program as being on schedule and under budget. In fact, the software for the aircraft is so well along that the program manager, Navy Capt. Donald Gaddis, said the schedule for software test was being moved “to the left”—in other words, accelerated.

Gaddis said the EA-18G improves on the EA-6B by being more precise in locating and jamming threat radars and offering the new capability of allowing aircraft near the Growler to communicate with each other. When the EA-6B is jamming, it also jams friendly communications. The Growler has an Interference Cancellation System that will allow friendly aircraft to communicate in its vicinity.

The Growler program was started just three years ago, and its overall cost is expected to be $9 billion, for a unit cost of $100 million per aircraft.

GAO Meddling

Reacting to a Government Accountability Office report claiming that the Navy could go slower on the EA-18G program by making some upgrades to EA-6B, the Senate cut the Growler program to just four aircraft in Fiscal 2008; the matter was headed for the House-Senate conference. Gaddis, however, said he didn’t need more time, and the Navy might have some serious trouble if it was obliged to extend the Prowler and slow the EA-18G.

The Navy plans to get all its Growlers by 2014. It will fund work on a next generation jamming pod for the aircraft in the 2010 POM.

A planned upgrade of the Growler will be to integrate its AEA systems with its APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar, which is also being fitted on newer F/A-18Es and Fs. The AESA radar, by virtue of its high-resolution synthetic aperture mapping, can be used to precisely locate enemy radar emitters, the better to target them for jamming or attack with anti-radiation missiles.

The advent of the AESA has also provided a welcome complication to the overall airborne electronic attack scheme, because similar radars are on the F-22 and will be on the F-35, as well. Officials from both services are mum about what those radars are really capable of, but radar industry officials have suggested they can generate enough power to fry the circuits of some radars, or possibly cancel them out by broadcasting an inverse radar waveform. Moreover, both aircraft have been designed to be highly network-centric, able to receive and transmit vast amounts of data, even when in their most stealthy mode.

The role of the F-22 and F-35 is “pretty much the heart of the debate that we’re in right now,” Rankin reported.

“There’s some debate as to how survivable they are in a certain threat scenario, so we’re looking at that right now.” He said that modeling and simulation efforts have been under way since January to determine the proper trade-off between “how many F-22s, … F-35s, how much B-52 SOJ support or EC-130 support.” Rankin said the capabilities of the F-22’s inherent electronic countermeasures are “very good for what they’re programmed for—and again, all part of the system of systems; we intend on using them as well.”

Although USAF looked at buying some F-22s as dedicated jammers, it discarded that idea to, again, avoid creating an oversubscribed asset that could never be bought in sufficient numbers to meet demand.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee said in February that the F-35 has “tremendous EA capability and would be a much more powerful jammer aircraft than the EA-18G Growler.” However, he also said there needs to be “a discussion” about how the services should divvy up the AEA mission. The Marine Corps opted out of the EA-18 program and put its money into the F-35.

Now, an “EA-35”

Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-22 and F-35, has done some preliminary study of the concept of an escort jammer based on the Joint Strike Fighter.

“There was a concept that was looked at when the Marine Corps was faced with looking at a stand-alone jammer,” said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin vice president for the F-35 program, in July.

The company considered a two-seat version. “Would you even need to?” said Burbage. “You probably don’t. But does it make any sense to put these big pods underneath an airplane that’s supposed to be stealthy? And how much inherent capability is there in the airplane already, to do the … mission?”

He said that “nobody has come back and asked us to do any follow-on work, so there’s no program going on right now … targeted at an EA-35.?” In the future, after the F-35 starts to build up in inventory, it may be possible for tactics to change and the stealth aircraft to do AEA “cooperatively,” thanks to their network centricity, without the need for large standoff jammers at all. However, he said the F-35 will not have sufficient energy to do “high-power, broadband” jamming such as that envisioned for the B-52 SOJ.

The Air Force got rid of its own escort jamming and dedicated suppression of enemy air defenses aircraft—the EF-111 and the F-4G—in the 1990s partly because it expected the fielding of stealth aircraft as a large proportion of the overall fleet would sharply reduce the need for such jamming aircraft by the mid-2000s.

However, the B-2 bomber was coupled with EA-6Bs during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 and took advantage of the Prowler’s jamming capabilities. The F-22 and F-35 may need some jamming support, as well.

“It depends on who you’re talking about that we’re going against,” an Air Force official said. In “certain scenarios, they’re fine. Other scenarios, we think they may not be. And I’m not going to say which ones are which. The stealthy platforms are very good against certain types of radars and they’re not very good against others.”

Gaddis said that the Navy opted to take a “balanced approach” to stealth, electronic warfare, network-centric operations, weapons signature, and “vulnerability reductions” when it began mapping out its Super Hornet and EA-18G programs. The result was “a very effective carrier air wing against a very robust IADS,” or integrated air defense system.

“That was our story,” he said, adding, “That is still a good story.”

Seeking Balance

Obviously there’s a need for stealthy platforms like F-22 and JSF, Gaddis said. But he said the Navy is still seeking the right way to “optimize” the balance between the stealth aircraft and the nonstealthy F/A-18E/F. “That’s … being studied right now, at least on the Navy side: Between how many Super Hornets and how many JSFs do we need?”

However, he asserted that the JSF will still need some jamming in certain circumstances.

“I don’t foresee folks going in alone and unafraid,” he said. “I would venture to say that there will be plans put in place where you’ll need Growlers. Whether it’s the [F/A-18] E/F, first day of the war, or F-35. I am positive of it. … From what I’ve seen, the Growler is going to be jamming for everybody that’s out there.”

Self-protection systems such as the ALQ-131 pod and the ALE-50 towed decoy work very well against certain kinds of threats, Rankin said, but they, too, will need constant improvements because “in the future, the threat is going to become … farther out, stronger, more integrated.”

He added that other programs have priority because “you have to get there” before an aircraft can use self-protection measures.

For the stand-in aspect of the mission, the Air Force has only one system at the moment: the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy. The MALD is a smallish missile that emulates the radar signatures of other aircraft and, it is hoped, will draw the fire of enemy air defenses. It is not recoverable or reusable, so the Air Force is laboring to keep the cost of the system down. The service is also looking at a variant, called the MALD-J for jammer, that would fly over threat radars directly and jam them at the source. A warhead could also possibly be added to give the decoy a direct-attack capability.

The Air Force might still want to use a recoverable unmanned aerial vehicle for the stand-in role, Rankin said.

“We know that we can use them, … and we’re pretty comfortable with using them” he noted.

The Air Force is hoping that it will be able to work the system of systems concept of AEA with the Navy. Rankin explained the many starts and stops of the plan as being the result of “so many different components and pieces and parts. … It gets very complex. … It’s just a matter of what we can afford and what kind of risk will we assume if we don’t have all the pieces together.”