Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Twists and Turns in the Electronic Attack Roadmap

Recently, we wrote of the Air Force’s pending problems in electronic attack (EA). More than a decade ago, the service retired its EF-111 Ravens, entering into a support agreement with the U.S. Navy. Under that pact, Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers would provide jamming support for USAF strike packages, while the service worked on its next generation of electronic attack platforms.

Unfortunately, most of those options--including a jammer drone and an EA version of the B-52—were cancelled. And, with the Navy agreement set to expire in 2012, the Air Force is facing potential shortfalls in electronic attack.

As we noted in our previous post, there is a continuing need for jamming support, even in an age of stealth aircraft. For starters, most of the Air Force strike fleet will consist of unstealthy F-15Es and F-16s well into the next decade.

Beyond that, even the stealthiest of aircraft, including the F-22 Raptor, benefit from EA support, since jammers can effectively target the older, low-frequency radars that are more effective against LCS platforms. Against that backdrop, the Air Force is about to get some good news on the EA front. David Fulghum of Aviation Week reports that the Pentagon is preparing to finalize the last part of the airborne electronic attack (AEA) roadmap, with the F-35 as the threshold aircraft. As Mr. Fulghum writes:

The Defense Department-mandated electronic attack (EA) package will be integral to the F-35, and it will likely be added, as a podded system, to existing aircraft. It will complement the EA system already in the F-22, the industry officials say. The specifics of that operational interrelationship are not clear, but will likely involve the use of additional frequencies.

The system is designed to have increasing capability as spirals of development work are completed, they say. That could include an increasingly broad frequency spectrum of attack, additional power for longer-range attacks including damage to some electrical components and the capability to plant false targets at longer ranges into enemy sensors.

We’ll defer the technical analysis to our EWO colleagues, but the F-35 proposal certainly makes sense. Not only does it allow jamming through the strike fighter’s advanced AESA radar, the proposed system will eventually incorporate techniques (information operations; network attack and false information) that have been largely unavailable in previous tactical EA platforms.

And, by utilizing a pod system, virtually any F-35 can serve as a jammer. Previous EA aircraft—including the EF-111—were built around internal jammers, limiting the jet to a support role. With its external jamming pods, the F-35 can still carry a limited amount of ordnance, giving it a hard-kill capability as well.

Best of all, with the Air Force is set to acquire hundreds of F-35s, the logistics and training infrastructure will be in place to support the jammer variant. The USAF took a pass on the EF-18 (the Navy’s new tactical jamming platform) is because the acquisition would require a huge, additional investment in maintenance, crew training and logistical services, required to integrate a “new” jet into the service inventory.

According to Fulghum, USAF officials expressed “surprise” that the EF-18 wasn’t selected as the threshold EA aircraft. But the Growler is anything but an also-ran in the jammer arsenal. The Navy is pushing ahead with the acquisition of 90 aircraft—enough for 10 squadrons—and the platform will likely have “linkages” with the F-35 jammer, and possibly with the upgraded EA-6B Prowlers, scheduled to remain in service with the Marine Corps.

While the F-35 decision is welcome news for the Air Force, it is not a panacea. The Joint Strike Fighter is on the cusp of low-rate initial production; significant numbers of F-35s (with their jammer pods) won’t be available until the middle of the next decade, at the earliest. That’s roughly three years after the Navy support agreement expires. And of course, there’s no guarantee that the next administration will fund the F-35 (and ancillary programs) to the same levels proposed by the Bush Administration.

While that memorandum on Mr. Young’s desk gets the Air Force back into the tactical EA game, the service will still face a jammer shortfall after 2012. Filling the gap between the expiration of the Navy support agreement and wide availability of pod-equipped F-35s remains a serious problem. But so far, the USAF hasn’t articulated a plan to get through that period—other than hoping it won’t need extensive jamming support before the EA-35 comes on line.

No comments: