Among its other problems, the U.S. Air Force is facing a crisis in electronic combat (EC).
At issue is what type(s) of jammers will be available to support USAF, joint-service and allied strike packages in the decades to come. As you’ll recall, the Air Force retired its EF-111 Ravens in the late 1990s, opting to rely on Navy and Marine Corps EA-6Bs for jamming support until new platforms became available after 2012.
Trouble is, most of those new systems—including UAV-based jammer and a previously-proposed B-52 electronic combat variant—have been cancelled, victims of budget issues and technical problems. Making matters worse, the Air Force agreement with the Navy, which covered EA-6B support, is set to expire in four years.
As we noted in a recent post, prospects for extending the agreement are virtually nil. While the Navy is buying 86 of the new EF-18 “Growlers,” those numbers are only sufficient to support USN operations and training. The same holds true for the EA-6Bs that will remain in the Marine Corps inventory.
That’s not to say the Air Force is without electronic combat options. Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars on the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can be used in a jamming role. Those aircraft also present a more difficult target for enemy radars, thanks to their stealth design.
But, with large numbers of non-stealthy strike aircraft projected to remain in the inventory through 2020, the Air Force still needs dedicated, stand-off jammers to reduce their vulnerability from ground-based air defenses. That’s one reason that the B-52 EC option isn’t quite dead—at least not yet.
According to Graham Warwick of Aviation Week, Boeing and several system suppliers have received contracts to “mature technology” for an Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) pod that could be flight-tested on a B-52 by 2012. If successful, the pod could lead to a more extensive jamming system, give the venerable bomber another shot as a stand-off EC platform, suppressing enemy radars for other strike aircraft.
The initial effort outlined in Aviation Week article is fairly modest—at least in terms of dollars. The three-year contracts given to Boeing and its partners total only $15 million—less than one percent of the funding allocated to the B-52 Stand-Off Jammer System (SOJS). More than $7 billion was spent on that project before it was cancelled in 2006, due to cost overruns.
If all goes well, the second phase of the AEA pod program would spend up to $350 million on two prototype pods, with flight testing in four years. As a Boeing official explained, the pod will use jammers already found on (or planned for) the EF-18, and the system will fit easily on the B-52:
To reduce costs, the pods are planned to have the same size, weight and center of gravity as underwing fuel tanks carried by the earlier B-52D. The pods would house high-power phased arrays providing jamming in two low bands and one mid band, principally to counter early-warning radars.
To power the pods, Boeing plans to add generators to the B-52, which presently has them on only four of its eight engines. There would be an electronic-attack processor and a dedicated display at the existing electronic-warfare officer’s station.
Boeing is teamed with Northrop Grumman, its partner on the U.S. Navy’s electronic-attack EA-18G Growler. “We will leverage off the EA-18’s controls and displays and Northrop Grumman’s electronic attack expertise to keep it affordable,” said Jeff Weis, the Boeing program manager.
The AEA development effort is actually a prelude to planned Core Component Jammer (CCJ), envisioned as a cost-efficient alternative to the cancelled B-52 SOJS. While all Buffs were scheduled for the SOJS upgrade, only a limited number will carry the CCJ—another tip toward saving money.
Boeing executives (and the Air Force) believe that the core jammer system could enter operational service in ten years. That would be welcome news but it also raises the question of what happens during that six-year stretch between 2012 and 2018, the period between the end of the Navy support agreement, and arrival of the first operational CCJ pods.
It’s just one more quandary awaiting the next Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz. Looking at the long list of critical issues facing the USAF, a senior Congressional aide said last month that the service needs a “miracle worker” as CofS.
We can’t disagree; while the EC issue is vitally important, in today’s Air Force, it wouldn't make the “Top 10” list of problems now facing the service. In a nutshell, General Schwartz is inheriting a mess. He’ll need all of his miracle-working skills (and then some) to resolve the jammer problem—and more pressing matters—that now confront the Air Force.