The New Way of Electron War

Dec. 1, 2004

The United States Air Force, after a long absence, has gone back to the business of airborne electronic attack (AEA).

For more than a decade, the US Navy has been the sole proprietor for that mission—generating electronic protection for US combat aircraft flying in enemy airspace. Navy airborne electronic attack aircraft and pilots have handled virtually all jamming work.

Now, the Air Force and Navy are moving toward a more balanced effort. They have prepared a division-of-labor scheme in which the two services will share overall responsibility.

The plan divides the AEA mission into four major parts:

  • Standoff jamming—the disruption of enemy communications from a distance—goes to the Air Force.
  • Escort jamming, assigned to the Navy, features jammer aircraft that fly as part of a strike package.
  • Self-protection, or the use of onboard-generated signals to throw off the guidance of surface-to-air missiles, will be provided by each service.
  • “Stand-in” jamming, or extremely close-in disruption of radars, hinges on two systems, one Air Force and one joint.

    The shift is gaining momentum. The services expect soon to get a green light from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council—the top overseer of operational concepts and mission needs. Specific program approvals could emerge this month.

    Under the new plan, the Air Force and Navy will pursue systems that will carry out various pieces of the AEA mission in an integrated and overlapping way.

    Heightened Threat

    The plan also makes the two services dependent upon each other for critical elements of their electronic protection. This will be an essential future element, inasmuch as air defenses have proliferated and are becoming more sophisticated.

    In fact, the prospective threat shapes up as being so great that even stealth aircraft usually will get jamming support.

    The plan envisions a wide array of advanced hardware. With few exceptions, each system is either still on the drawing boards or entails a substantial modification of an existing system. The first of the new capabilities won’t arrive for five years.

    Three years ago, USAF and the Navy conducted an analysis of alternatives in light of the looming retirement of the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler, an escort jamming airplane in service for 30 years. Plans call for it to phase out by 2012.

    The Air Force, which retired its F-4G Wild Weasel in 1996 and its EF-111 Raven electronic warfare aircraft in 1998, leans heavily on the Prowler’s capabilities. Air Force crews fly on Prowlers; 24 USAF flight personnel are assigned to Prowler units.

    The analysis of alternatives delivered a large menu of possible options (see “Next Steps in Electronic Attack,” June 2002, p. 48), but the Pentagon leadership was critical of the overall results as being too “platform-centric.”

    The Pentagon subsequently was chided by the Electronic Warfare Working Group on Capitol Hill. Legislators in this group claimed that DOD was not moving rapidly enough to develop a coherent plan for AEA and had evinced “chronic neglect” of the mission area.

    Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told defense reporters last year that electronic warfare was not “No. 1 on everybody’s list” of Pentagon priorities. (See “Washington Watch: EW Plans Not a Priority,” January, p. 8.)

    At that point, the Air Force and Navy began focusing on the effects they wanted to achieve with AEA, rather than the means by which they would accomplish the mission. They branched out the definition of electronic warfare and expanded the realm of systems that could assist in the mission.

    Lt. Col. Edward Cabrera, chief of the Air Staff’s Electronic Warfare and Survivability Division, said the new goal is to develop “a system of systems that will serve all services’ needs.” He said that the four parts of jamming—from standoff to stand-in—“encompass the entire spectrum of where we expect to engage.”

    The four mission areas complement each other, he said, and with some overlap. However, he added, “if you’re missing one, then you’re going to be particularly vulnerable in that area.”

    Operations in these four realms will also be coordinated by the new E-10A airborne battle management aircraft, which will serve as a link between a ground-based air operations center and the rapidly shifting air battle.

    Standoff Jamming

    For the standoff mission, the Air Force will take the lead. It will depend on its EC-130 Compass Call aircraft for jamming of enemy voice communications, as well as some signals intelligence and jamming functions that are included in upcoming budgets but are classified. The Compass Call will get new “glass cockpit” operator stations and new pods with greater radiating capability.

    Also in the standoff range—still outside enemy air defenses—will be the B-52 standoff jammer. This is a standard B-52H with upgraded electronics, featuring two outboard wing pods which will carry a suite of powerful jamming gear. The large pods—each potentially as much as 40 feet long—will be able to generate as much power as six Prowlers. Each will weigh about 5,000 pounds, the same weight as a full external fuel tank.

    Although initially dubbed EB-52s, the aircraft have been rechristened B-52 SOJ or just B-52J because they will retain their full bombing capability. No new crew members will be needed.

    The Air Force expects ultimately to fit 76 B-52Hs with the ability to carry the EW pods, of which it plans to produce 36 two-pod sets.

    In an April letter to Capitol Hill committees overseeing defense, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche reported the B-52 SOJ will satisfy the service’s standoff jamming needs and bolster the air and space expeditionary force concept “by minimizing creation of another low-density, high-demand asset.”

    The EA-6B has consistently been labeled as an LD/HD.

    The B-52 also offers the advantage of long range, extended loiter time, “rapid employability,” and its full complement of strike capability, even while taking on the SOJ mission, Roche wrote.

    Scott Oathut, who manages bomber programs for Boeing, told reporters in July that the company by 2009 could have four of the aircraft equipped and ready to receive the pods. By 2012, the Air Force could have six B-52s converted to SOJs. By 2013, 16 aircraft would be available for the mission.

    The pods would also increase in capability. The first “spiral” of pods would be able to jam known, fixed radar and emitter sites. The pods produced during the second spiral, in 2012, would be able to perform “reactive” jamming against pop-up targets. For the second-spiral jammers, the B-52 SOJ will need more power. “Supplemental power generation will be added to the aircraft,” a Boeing spokesman reported.

    All the SOJ capabilities depend on the B-52 fleet receiving the avionics midlife improvement, already being tested.

    The Air Force has forecast spending roughly $1.4 billion through 2012 to buy the SOJ capability for the B-52. For that amount, it would get 16 aircraft modified and 12 pod sets. More modifications and pod purchases would be funded with additional, outyear monies.

    Escort Jamming

    Through 2011, the Navy EA-6B will perform escort jamming. Meantime, there will be improvements to its jamming suite. Beginning in 2009, though, the 120 Prowlers will begin retiring, to be replaced by the EA-18G Growler, a modestly altered F/A-18F two-seat strike aircraft which retains full conventional combat capability. The G model will feature some changed internal structure and avionics and will carry wing pods not unlike those now carried by the four-seat EA-6B.

    The Navy, which will not receive a stealth aircraft of its own until 2012, has already received approval to build EA-18Gs, and in fact assembly of the first such aircraft began this summer. The service plans to acquire only 90 EA-18Gs, rather than replacing all 120 EA-6Bs, because by that time it will have reduced the overall number of combat aircraft in its inventory. Since the Growler is a two-seat airplane, no Air Force crews are expected to be detached to fly it.

    As the Prowlers begin to phase out, the B-52 SOJ will take over some of the escort mission from long range, flying behind a strike package, detecting and jamming enemy radars, and cuing strike elements on where to shoot their antiradar missiles.


    For the self-protection element of the AEA network, the Air Force and Navy will depend on the inherent—and classified—capabilities of the stealthy F/A-22 and F-35, both of which eventually will carry active electronically scanned array radars, or AESAs. These radars, which will represent a huge advance over today’s systems, will be able to detect and discretely jam specific ground-based air defense radars without necessarily sacrificing the stealthiness of the aircraft. This is due to the fact that AESAs can direct a powerful beam of radar in a specific direction without too much energy radiating sideways—what’s called a “low probability of intercept” or “low side lobes” feature.

    While it’s true that any emissions will announce the presence of a stealthy aircraft, Cabrera said that all applications of EW will be highly “scenario dependent.” Different elements of the AEA portfolio will be called upon in different situations, and only in the most taxing circumstances would all aspects be involved.

    It is expected that the F/A-22 and F-35 will both have enough onboard power that, coupled with their AESA radars, they may be able to directionally “fry” a specific radar that pops up along their route to the target.

    The Air Force will operate both the F/A-22 and F-35. The Navy and Marine Corps will operate versions of the F-35 only. The Marines opted out of the F/A-18E/F program, due to affordability, and thus will not buy any EA-18Gs either. However, Marine aviation officials have said they would like to keep their options open regarding the purchase of an EW-dedicated variant of the F-35 in the far future. Lockheed Martin, which will build the F-35, has done very preliminary design work on a two-seat EF-35 that would serve this mission.

    Another element of AEA will be the availability of self-protection jamming pods like the ALQ-131. These pods, which are typically used just prior to entering a target area, are meant to throw off radar-guided surface-to-air missiles. However, the pods will not be enough to protect Air Force fighters in the future. In the Balkans war in 1999, for example, the Serbs employed cell phones and other nontraditional methods to provide targeting information for their SAM systems, which claimed an F-117 stealth fighter early in the conflict.

    Stand-In Jamming

    Finally, for the “stand-in” role—almost directly over enemy radars—two systems will be involved. One is the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy Jammer. This missile-sized system will behave and appear on radar like an attack aircraft, fooling the enemy into turning on radars that reveal its positions. Over the target, the miniature jammer would be able to radiate intense jamming to disable acquisition and tracking radars. As the MALD-J is still in the early stages of definition, Cabrera said USAF hasn’t decided whether the vehicle will have to be stealthy, the frequencies in which it will work, or whether it might carry a warhead for a lethal attack on a radar site.

    The Air Force is planning to budget about $660 million through Fiscal 2012 for MALD-J. The program started out in 1996 as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency concept demonstration, but the Air Force went back to the drawing board when cost and performance didn’t meet expectations. Raytheon won a second competition for the system and has an $88 million development contract. The MALD is to be able to fly at 35,000 feet for up to 45 minutes. First flight is expected next year.

    “It’s basically a small, dispensable UAV that would then fly a preprogrammed track and, at the designated time and place, produce a jamming effect,” Cabrera said.

    The other stand-in platform will be the Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System, or J-UCAS. This vehicle, too, has yet to be defined, but would probably carry both jamming systems as well as kinetic munitions for a lethal attack.

    Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, said in September that experience has shown that unmanned vehicles have proved not to be cheap and disposable but expensive and that the J-UCAS will likely be a vehicle the service will want to recover after every mission.

    The MALD-J is not a bridge to the J-UCAS, Cabrera noted, explaining that the two systems are expected to work collaboratively in the stand-in jamming role. MALD-J will probably be available sooner.

    The Air Force considers the B-52 SOJ and the MALD-J to be “urgent” requirements, but is not rushing to deploy them because the Navy has promised to provide full escort jamming through 2009. The first spiral of B-52 SOJs should be available before the EA-6B support is withdrawn.

    Cabrera said the goal now is to “change the mind-set of those folks who think of AEA or EW as turning the pod on and off.”

    The purpose of having an integrated AEA system of systems is that it “will allow us to attack nontraditional target sets,” he said and added that it will work against more than SAMS—for instance “cellular systems, network systems, any kind of adversary system that uses the electromagnetic spectrum.”

    Suppression of enemy air defenses, a mission performed by the F-16CJ, will also continue, but that mission area is considered “offensive counterair” and not airborne electronic attack. Cabrera said, however, that SEAD will be incorporated into the overall AEA “flight plan.”

    Seeking Integration

    The AEA strategy is aimed at integration of all elements to provide both better capability and to prevent new problems, Cabrera noted.

    With so many AEA systems involved in an air campaign, for instance, “unless you have a deconfliction plan or overall strategy, you end up potentially countering yourself” and creating the opportunity for fratricide.

    When the Air Force retired the EF-111, it did so as a cost-saving measure. There was also the explanation, voiced by service leaders at the time, that a future force composed of mostly stealthy aircraft would have a diminished need for jamming. A decade after that decision, though, things have changed, Cabrera reported.

    “The difference between now and 10 years ago … is the advancement of the threat,” he said. “There’s been a significant increase in threat capability in terms of range, … detection, … launch ranges of missiles, and those sorts of things.”

    Since 1988, potential adversaries have had to take into account that the US had stealth aircraft it could employ with great effect, and they have taken steps to reduce their risk.

    “Obviously, adversaries don’t stand still and continue to develop their systems,” Cabrera said. “We can’t stand still, either. So the airborne electronic attack [plan] is our vision to help mitigate that increased risk caused by that advancing and emerging threat. … You have to continually counter it.”

    Jamming will also increase the options for stealth aircraft. Over years of explaining the value of stealth, the Air Force has typically shown a series of interlocked circles on a map, depicting the overlapping ranges of an enemy’s search, acquisition, and tracking radars. Stealth aircraft reduce enemy sensor detection ranges, shrink the circles, eliminate the overlap areas, and create “corridors” where they can pass through, undetected.

    Pop-Up Threats

    However, those corridors will also be known to the enemy, who may deploy pop-up radars and SAMs along those routes to defeat stealth aircraft. Jammers in the area will help to further reduce detection ranges and leave the enemy guessing as to which corridors the stealth aircraft will use to penetrate to their targets.

    In addition, USAF plans to obtain a mostly stealth force by the end of this decade have been frustrated by developmental and funding delays. For the foreseeable future, a good portion of the Air Force’s strike assets will continue to be nonstealthy “legacy” platforms that will depend on AEA systems for their very survival.

    “The reality is, we’re going to have legacy platforms mixed with our stealth platforms for many years to come,” Cabrera noted. “And so, we have to have a system than can protect both.”

    Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, outgoing head of Air Combat Command, said recently that there is also great promise in other forms of electronic warfare, notably in information operations.

    Speaking with defense reporters in June, Hornburg said the Air Force needs to “aggressively pursue other ways to get into the electronic attack business,” because electronic attack is just one dimension of information operations.

    “It can be a necessary part of any nonkinetic operation. I think this nation and our military need to look at nonkinetics as the way ahead as much as developing kinetic applications for warfare.” The capabilities to create effects without destroying something in the process “intrigue me deeply,” Hornburg said.

    “I look forward to the day where we can convince a surface-to-air missile that it’s a Maytag in a rinse cycle, make it irrelevant to combat.” Hornburg is excited by the possibility that an “advancing phalanx of enemy armor” would stop in its tracks because a space or airborne system told the vehicles to turn off their engines.

    The Air Force is often criticized as having surrendered much of its AEA expertise when it phased out the EF-111 and the F-4G. These complaints stem from the fact that the service stopped training electronic warfare officers in 1993 and didn’t reopen the pipeline until 1996. Then, the EW school produced no EW specialists for a grand total of four years.

    David Kratz, a former Air Force EW practitioner and now program manager for Northrop Grumman’s advanced electronic warfare systems, told reporters in September that “the Air Force has acknowledged that it had a big brain drain as far as electronic warfare knowledge” over the past six to eight years.

    “They’re trying now to bring more electronic warfare expertise back into the Air Force. … They’re doing a fairly good job of calling what’s left together to decide what they’re going to do,” Kratz said.

    Cabrera agreed that the Air Force probably had “a wake-up call back in the late ’90s when we realized, after the F-4G and EF-111 had gone away” that the threat continued “to evolve.” Cabrera said an EW summit in 2000, called by then-Chief of Staff Gen. Michael E. Ryan, allowed the Air Force to gauge its needs “on where we were and where we needed to be. And there was a lot of activity generated from that summit.” It helped drive the analysis of alternatives, he noted.

    Lt. Col. Wayne Shaw, electronic warfare chief of the Information Superiority Division of the Air Staff, said the perceived brain drain isn’t as bad as it seems, however.

    Shaw noted that EW-trained crews from the F-4G and the EF-111 went on to fly F-15Es, F-16CJs, Compass Call, EA-6B, and other platforms. They “provided real value” to those mission areas by virtue of their EW experience, and many of them have stuck with the Air Force, he said. Their expertise will be useful as USAF gets back into the game in a big way.

    Cabrera agreed that there’s “still quite a bit of expertise out there.”

    He said that 2005 will be “a banner year” for the AEA mission, because the service will have a much better “understanding [of] the funding that we actually have that will define for us how far we can go with the development and integration of these systems.”

    By the fall of 2005, “we’ll have a much better idea of the funding lines. Then we can start building a timeline.” Right now, he added, “we’re still defining capabilities.”