‘Agile, adaptive and integrated electronic warfare’ is how the Pentagon recently described its new strategy to ensure continued US superiority across the electromagnetic spectrum – something which has gained high priority in the wake of growing Russian technological progress. Moscow’s successful use of electronic warfare (EW) in Ukraine and elsewhere, coupled with the deployment of advanced Russian air defences – arguably some of the best in the world – to Syria has put jamming firmly back in the spotlight, not least for the US Navy and its fleet of EA-18G Growlers.
Growlers and Prowlers
Billed as the only operational tactical jamming fighter in the world, the Growler is a specialised version of the F/A18-F Super Hornet, and since achieving initial operational capability in September 2009, it has been equipped with the AN/ALQ-99 airborne EW system. The AN/ALQ-99 itself, however, can claim much older ancestry, having been designed in the late 1960s, and first fielded in 1971with the introduction of the EA-6 Prowler, the EW variant of the A-6 Intruder, in time to see combat service in Vietnam.
Today, however, the AN/ALQ-99 stands as an ageing system, still rooted in analogue technology, increasingly difficult to maintain and plagued by issues of poor reliability, leaving the Navy with little choice but to catch up with the advances in modern electronics and join the digital age.
Enter the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), a new, more capable EW system that combines agile, high-power beam-jamming techniques and state-of-the-art solid-state electronics to give wider threat coverage, greater precision and enhanced mission flexibility. According to the US Naval Air Systems Command, it “will provide enhanced airborne electronic attack capabilities to disrupt and degrade enemy air defence and ground communication systems.”
Having beaten off some strong competition to win the main contract in 2013, and then survived a subsequent formal protest from Boeing, Raytheon is developing the NGJ programme on a staggered schedule, to be delivered in three increments.
Increment 1 will provide mid-band jamming capabilities to counter the engagement radars commonly used by ground-based surface-to-air defence systems, which are deemed to pose the greatest current threat to US aircraft. Scheduled to be in service with the US Navy and achieve initial operating capability in 2020/21, Increment 1 pods will replace the existing under-wing mid-band AN/ALQ-99 pods on the Growlers.
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The current low-band pods located on the aircrafts’ centre-line, underneath the fuselage, which were recently upgraded and modernised, will be retained until at least 2022, when the low-band capability to jam surveillance radar will be extended to the NGJ in Increment 2. Whether this is likely to be achieved as a straightforward like-for-like pod swap or via the addition of the new band-range directly to the NGJ unit is not, as yet, known. Finally, and currently scheduled to take place in 2024, Increment 3 will provide the Navy with the entirely new capacity for high-band jamming to help deal with the air-to-air threat from enemy fighters.
A raft of innovative technology and ideas underpins Raytheon’s design, including Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar utilising the gallium nitride technology that the company has spent over 15 years and $200m to pioneer. According to Captain John ‘Bails’ Bailey, former programme manager of the US Navy Airborne Electronic Attack Systems, the NGJ will generate around ten times the isotropic radiated power of the old AN/ALQ-99, and the signal itself is cleaner, which means less accidental interference. Speaking at the Sea Air Space seminar in May 2016, he said it could also handle “quadruple the number of assignments” and can switch from target to target almost instantaneously.
Also built-in is the ability to collect, analyse and jam new enemy signals as they occur, enabling the system to adjust in-flight to evolving threat profiles, and apply appropriate counter measures as the situation develops. Its agile jamming flexibility is further extended by the deliberate choice of open architecture, solid-state electronics, which enables quick and easy updates to be made to its on-board threat library as and when required, to meet new hostile capabilities as they appear.
The NGJ reportedly goes beyond traditional jamming too, adding signals intelligence and a communications hub capability to the more usual EW and radar tasks for the AESA array.
There have also been some reports that the system has the potential ability to launch a cyber-attack, involving inserting rogue data packets into enemy systems in a so-called “network invasion.” Such an attack is rumoured to have played a part in the 2007 Israeli ‘Operation Orchard’ raid on a nuclear plant near the eastern Syrian city of Dir A-Zur, in which BAE’s ‘Suter’ airborne network attack system was said to have shut down Syria’s Russian-made air defences.
The US Navy alluded to its interest in the idea in its 2015 ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower’, adding ‘all-domain access’ to the traditional four functions of the fleet, and according anti-access/area denial threats almost the same priority as nuclear deterrence. It would hardly come as a big surprise, then, if the reports of the new system’s additional cyber offensive capability were ultimately to turn out to be true.
Jamming after Growler
Although the Growler will now be the inaugural platform to carry the NGJ, the new jammer had originally been envisioned for integration with the F-35 Lighting II, but the concept proved to be more costly and difficult to achieve than had first been anticipated. Never-the-less, it remains highly likely that the idea will be revisited once the NGL comes into service and further work done to enable it to be carried internally by F-35 variants, as well as developing the system to be fitted as a modular unit to other aircraft types.
As effective, broad spectrum jamming increasingly becomes key to survival in the modern contested airspace, UCLASS and other UAVs will almost certainly be included in efforts to help meet the growing capability demand. With the US Marine Corps due to retire its own fleet of EA-6B Prowlers in 2019 and no in-service replacements in the pipeline, the weight of the EW mission for naval expeditionary airpower will fall entirely on the Navy. Going forward, the NGJ will have a big role to fill.