Growler and its impact on Australia’s EW capabilities

If the RAAF takes up the option of converting up to 12 Super Hornets to EA-18 Growler configuration, it will provide the ADF with a new and complex airborne EW capability. In such an event their application in a 3D battlefield electronic environment is considered likely to stretch the RAAF’s EW Squadron’s technical capacity for many years as the system evolves and the threat environment changes and ramps up. This situation lends itself to a logical decision to source EA-18G technology and techniques from the USAF/US Industry conglomerate that design and supply it. Ironically, this may bring about the ultimate demise of the EW Squadron’s “raison d’etre” - apart from involvement in a decreasing number of simple, indigenous, EW systems. As Shakespeare so beautifully described it, the EW Squadron may yet be “hoist on its own petard”.

6th Apr 2011


 Electronic Warfare

 

 Growler and its impact on Australia’s EW capabilities

 


If the RAAF takes up the option of converting up to 12 Super Hornets to EA-18 Growler configuration, it will provide the ADF with a new and complex airborne EW capability. In such an event their application in a 3D battlefield electronic environment is considered likely to stretch the RAAF’s EW Squadron’s technical capacity for many years as the system evolves and the threat environment changes and ramps up. This situation lends itself to a logical decision to source EA-18G technology and techniques from the USAF/US Industry conglomerate that design and supply it. Ironically, this may bring about the ultimate demise of the EW Squadron’s “raison d’etre” - apart from involvement in a decreasing number of simple, indigenous, EW systems. As Shakespeare so beautifully described it, the EW Squadron may yet be “hoist on its own petard”.


With the retirement of the EF-111, Defence was concerned that it would be left without any Stand-Off- Jammer (SOJ) battlefield capability or a surface EW environment detection capability of serious value. The US Navy was similarly concerned that the retirement of the obsolete EA-6B Prowler, without a replacement, would leave its carrier-borne combat resources without an EW force projection capability or an EW “shield” - except for the limited EW self-protection on its F/A-18s. The US Navy also did not accept that a major overhaul of the EA-6B - due to its extreme age and the rugged operational environment imposed on this aircraft - was logical. Like the EF-111 its time had come. Furthermore, the USAF was retiring its B52-H SOJ capability, with the result that a major hole in an Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) capability in the US Armed Forces would occur.


The EA-18G Program Origin


Rising to the situation in late 2001, Boeing successfully completed a DoD-funded flight demonstration of an F/A-18 “F-1” to demonstrate a carrier-borne AEA capability by installing an ALQ-99 EW system on an F/A-18E/F aircraft. This was seen as the logical approach and economic replacement of the EA-6B. The ALQ-99 is also long in the tooth but is installed on the EA-6B to provide SOJ capabilities and is but one system to be replaced in an emerging program called the Next Generation Tactical Jammer and described later.
Despite the success of the demonstration there were a number of detractors within the Pentagon of the proposed EA-18G program, some of whom argued that the two-seat version of an F/A-18 AEA aircraft would impose too high a workload on its aircrew. (KYM TO TASHA / BPS) The GAO also had its day by belated argument in 2006, stating that the selected EW suite for the EA-18G was immature, thus demonstrating an unknown future cost and growth of it, as well as being critical of crew EW operations workloads in a two-seat aircraft. (The EA-6B carries four EW operators, but this is probably an unfair comparison considering the age of the -6B EW systems and the extant electronic technologies employed in the F/A-18). It is also understood that in 2008 the GAO recommended the further development of the EA-6B to fill any current and near term capability gaps and to “restructure the EA-18G program until the aircraft had demonstrated full functionality”.


Notwithstanding such criticism, in late 2003 the US Navy funded Boeing to develop its concept called the EA-18G, based on adoption of the FA-18 E/F aircraft as the platform and an EW suite initially based on some of the EA-6B systems, to satisfy its forecast of the need for up to 90 of them.
In the remarkably short time of nine months the EA-18G went into production with the first aircraft of this type having a public roll-out in August 2006 - with the aircraft dubbed as “Growlers” - and by mid-2008 an accelerated flight test and qualification program was in being and was very successful due to the mature platform.
With the bit between its teeth, the US Navy persisted with its opinion and the program and ordered 57 EA-18Gs to fill the gap left by the retirement of the EA-6Bs. To meet this requirement the US DoD approved an EA-18G LRIP schedule to begin in 2007 and specified completion of flight testing by 2008. In the same year (2007) the US Navy announced plans to increase the number of EA-18Gs to 85 and in mid 2009 the EA-18G successfully completed its operational evaluation and was rated as operationally effective. At the end of 2009 the US Navy approved a full rate production schedule of 20 aircraft per year.


In May 2010 Boeing and the US DoD reached an agreement for a multi-year contract for an additional 66 F/A-18 E/Fs and 58 EA-18Gs to be delivered over the next four years. As of February 2011 the first operational squadron of EA-18Gs was deployed and in the 2011 budget the Obama Administration requested that an additional four squadrons of the aircraft be added, raising the total number of EA-18Gs ordered to 114. However, in the same month the Director, OT&E determined that “the EA-18G was still not operationally suitable”, with software development still in the hands of Boeing, and this is a recurring issue with that company on a number of defence programs. But the story of the development of this superb capability does not end here and it is certain that newer EW systems will emerge to combat the changing environment for this class of aircraft and the aircraft itself will evolve. That, of course, is nothing new.


Australia’s approach


Meanwhile, Australia with full visibility of the US program, requested export approval for the purchase of up to six EA-18Gs, as EF-111 replacements, that would be part of the order for 24 F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet” variants to fill a capability not provided by the F-35. Early in 2009 Joel Fitzgibbon, then Minister for Defence, announced that 12 of the 24 F/A-18E/Fs would have the EA-18G wiring harnesses installed at a cost of A$35m with the final mix decision of the 24 aircraft scheduled to be made in 2012 at a reported cost of A$300m for 12 EA-18Gs.
Noteworthy is the fact that in the F-35 program there is no equivalent of the EA-18G Growler’s EW performance, or in any other extant Australian aircraft program so, if the EA-18Gs perform to specification they are likely to be retained, as should the superb F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. (Note: The APG-81 radar for the JSF is understood to be slated to be modified to provide “point source” jamming in addition to that capability being provided on the Growler.)
Design of the EA-18G


• The EA-18G’s primary missions are Electronic Attack (EA), Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) with a secondary capability, when not conducting its primary missions, being conventional strike missions in common with the F/A-18E/F’s role.
• The performance characteristics of the two aircraft appear to be literally identical apart from two mass figures, where the Growler is heavier; with an empty mass increase of 800kg to15,000kg and carrier landing mass increase of 1,350kg to 21,775kg.
• The basis of the EA-18G is the standard two-seat F/A-18F “Super Hornet”, with very few structural changes to it and the retention of nine multi-purpose wing pylons and three fuselage hard points. Boeing has stated that there is a 90% commonality between the two aircraft with ready role convertibility, providing that an EA-18G wiring harness is installed during construction. (KYM TO TASHA / BPS)
• The pilot is provided with HOTAS and HMCS, the latter providing aircraft and mission data e.g, targeting cues and aircraft performance data by their superimposition on the external visual display on the pilot’s visor. The HMCS enables the pilot to aim his weapons by pointing at them with his head. The aircraft has a full, digital, fly-by-wire system, communications and other specified subsystems.
• The EW Officer in the rear cockpit controls and monitors the EW system with very close integration with the pilot. The rear cockpit is fitted with a touch screen LCD for mission control, a full colour tactical LCD and two multi-purpose LCDs. Displays are capable of presenting moving map tactical information.
• A key capability of the aircraft is the installation of the Raytheon AN/APG-79 multimode AESA tactical radar which has passive detection, active radar suppression modes of operation to provide air-to-air, air to ground, targeting, tracking and self-protection. This radar provides critically important data to the EA and SEAD EW functions.
Weapon suite
The carried weapons vary with the mission definition. Currently, in the:
• Surveillance only mission: two AIM-120 AMRAAM self-defence missiles are carried.
• SOJ and Escort Jamming missions: two AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AGM-88 ARM missiles are carried.
• Strike mission: two AGM-88 and two AGM-154 JSOW missiles are carried.


EW Suite


In simple terms the EA-18G is an E/F aircraft with selected external pylon-carried weapons being optionally removed, allowing podded EW sensors to be fitted on a mission basis, and permanent removal of the 20mm cannon allowing a pod-like EW system electronics package to be installed in the vacated space. Importantly, this approach allows the F/A-18’s role to be reinstated by simply swapping EW pods for weapon pods and vice-versa (gun excepted). The installation and performance of other sensors , such as the AESA radar, communications and other systems are unaffected.


Block 1 Growler EW Suite


The EW systems currently installed on the Block 1 Growler are:
• Northrop Grumman AN/ALQ-182 (V)2 wideband Tactical Jamming Receiver that provides threat detection, geo-location and identification of ground-based threat emitters and cues on board jammers to jam them. This system is installed in a pod carried on each wingtip of the aircraft to optimize the system’s acquisition polar diagram
• EDO ALQ-99, that comprises a receiver, a techniques generator, installed in the rear of the aircraft, and a number of podded high power RF Jammers to cover a defined, wide frequency, band. Up to five ALQ-99 pods may be distributed on wing and centre fuselage stations
• BAE Systems ALE-47 CM Dispenser that can launch various types of decoys to seduce incoming missile threats
Next Generation Tactical Jammer (NGJ) Program
The NGJ is an ambitious program to upgrade the technologies and performance of the EA-18G. A particular target is the use of distributed planar antenna array technology to improve the performance envelope of the system, signal acquisition accuracy and the production of jamming envelopes. The use of advanced digital processing techniques, yielding improved data display characteristics for the crew is part of the package.
The ALQ-99 will be replaced due to technology vintage and increasing unreliability. But the N-G ALQ-182 (V) 2, or a variant of it; the Raytheon ALQ-227 Communications CM Set that uses current low-bandwidth technology for communications jamming and the ITT Interference Cancellation System (INCANS) that provides a UHF communications capability in a low frequency jamming environment are identified candidates.
Four competitive NGJ “Technology Maturation Phase” studies, each worth USD 42M, were awarded to the following companies in July 2010 with their completion presently scheduled for April 2012. The companies are BAE Systems Information and Electronic Systems, ITT Electronic Systems, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.


The above phase will be followed by a “Technology Development Phase” and a competitive “Prototype Phase” that will include flight-testing and evaluation, the latter carried out by only two of the above contractors. Following completion of this phase down-selection to a single contractor for EMD and eventually LRIP activities will be made. It is planned to introduce the NGJ into fleet operations in the EA-18G mid FY 2018.
The above program has a “short fuze” with little fat in it. One also has to ponder how the three “losers”, who each appear to have partial solutions to the totality of the NGJ, will be able to work as integrated subcontractors and members of a two-contractor Prototype Phase and the follow-on single production contractor Production Phase.
Other potential applications for the NGJ, or derivatives of it, must include the P-8A and HALE UAVs. But the F-35 is considered unlikely to be assigned any of the offensive roles of the EA-18G and therefore may be restricted to the adoption of some of the NGJ’s EW subsystem self-protection capabilities and only limited offensive capabilities.


Conclusions


• The F/A-18 series aircraft underpin the US carrier- borne capability and will do so until 2030-40. The EA-18G complements this fleet and international F/A-18 users are likely to adopt it.
• The EA-18G is a high performance aircraft with an operational capability in advanced 3D EW environments, and role conversion, with the F/A-18 EF. This capability exceeds the F-35’s spectrum. Hence for many users the EA-18G may become a competitor for the F-35.
• As the EA-18G has a stated 90% commonality with the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, with established flyaway costs, operating and through-life support costs, unlike those for the unproven F-35 single-engine fighter.
• The products of the NGJ program and its future growth capabilities will provide a compelling reason for the adoption and retention of the EA-18G by the RAAF.

 

Growler operational footnote


It is reported that the Growler is operational over Libya to provide EW protection to air operations being provided by France, UK and USA against Gaddafi’s forces. It has also been reported that Gaddafi’s air power capabilities have been destroyed, thus eliminating the likelihood of air combat. This suggests that, if true, the deployment of Growler will be to provide stand-off jamming and also detection and jamming of radiating ground-based surface-to-air weapons using the Block 1 EW Suite described above.
It is also understood that the US Defense Department has requested that the NGJ be introduced into service at an earlier date than stated above.

 

APDR at a glance