Saturday, May 17, 2008

In a Jam

Over at Aviation Week's defense blog, Graham Warwick highlights yet another headache for the Air Force--the service's inability to develop a viable electronic attack strategy, or platforms to carry out that mission.

As Mr. Warwick reminds us, the USAF has been relying on Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers to provide tactical jamming support for its strike aircraft. But the support agreement between the two services is set to expire in 2012 and as of this writing, the Air Force has nothing in the works to provide electronic jamming for non-stealth aircraft.

And, making matters worse, the Navy is only buying 85 of its new EA-18G Growler--enough to cover fleet operations, but not enough to support carrier squadrons and Air Force strike packages.

You may recall that the USAF once had a superb escort jammer--the EF-111 "Raven." Based on the venerable F-111 design, the Raven was more than fast enough to follow strike packages into the target area, establish its "Taco" jamming orbit and suppress enemy radars, then cover the egress of attack aircraft.

But, in the post-Cold War military, it became apparent that DoD couldn't afford the Raven and the EA-6B. So, some bright folks in the Pentagon hit on the idea of retiring the EF-111 and utilizing the more-numerous Prowler squadrons to cover Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force strike operations.

To some degree, the idea made sense. Not only was the EA-6B inventory greater than the number of EF-111s, the Navy and Marine Corps jammer offered greater coverage of threat radars and it was capable of firing anti-radiation missiles. But there were some trade offs. The Prowler was slower than the Raven.

Participating in more than a few Red Flags and Green Flags, I listened to strike crews complain that the Prowlers "couldn't keep up." A standard tactic on the Nellis range was to "push" the EA-6Bs ahead of the bombers, particularly if you had aircraft like the F-111 or F-15E in the formation. Sending the Prowlers in advance allowed them to target air defenses more effectively, and it also kept them from falling behind.

Unfortunately, that tactic made them an easy target for "red air," which was quite adept at stripping the jammers from the strike package. If the Prowlers survived, their HARM capability was a welcome addition for EC (electronic combat) package commanders. But, if I recall correctly, the addition of HARMs limited their jammer load.

Whatever their liabilities, the Prowler community did a fine job supporting Air Force strike operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and over Iraq. In the interim, the USAF was supposed to develop its own plan for jamming support, developing new systems that were supposed to be ready by 2012.

Even if you're not a career electronic warfare officer (EWO), you can probably guess what happened. Two of the Air Force's "favored" solutions for electronic attack, the EB-52 (a Buff configured for stand-off jamming) and the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) were cancelled. A third system projected for the USAF EC quiver, the miniature air-launched decoy, has been delayed until 2011, at the earliest.

That is not to say the USAF is completely without options. With its purchase of the F-22 (and the F-35 in the works), a significant number of Air Force strike platforms will be low-observable and, presumably, require less jamming support than older aircraft. The AESA radars of the Raptor and the Lightning II also have inherent jamming capabilities.

But those arguments only go so far. F-22 production will likely be capped in the low 200s, and those platforms will be used for a variety of missions. Given those realities, the F-22's most likely EC mission will be self-defense (or screening other Raptors), rather than protecting non-stealth aircraft. The same holds true for the F-35.

And, until the F-35 begins replacing the F-16 in large numbers--at the end of the next decade--most of the Air Force strike inventory will consist of aircraft that are not low observable. That means a continuing requirement for stand-off and close-in jamming support, against an air defense arrays that grow increasingly robust.

At this point, there are no easy solutions for the Air Force's electronic attack woes. The clock is ticking on that support agreement and buying Growlers for the USAF simply isn't an option. Our guess is that the USAF will attempt to muddle through, relying on stealth to decrease the need for jamming and hoping that its non-stealthy attack jets don't have to face an advanced air defense network (read: double-digit SAMs) before retirement.

As Mr. Warwick writes, someone needs to ask the Air Force why it has bungled the electronic attack mission so badly. True, the service had to be dragged into the EA-6B agreement, and many EWOs warned of its long-term consequences. But the USAF ultimately signed on the bottom line, with a promise to develop long-term solutions for tactical jamming.

More than a decade later, those "solutions" are as elusive as ever. As for the EWOs who tried to warn Air Force about the perils of the Prowler deal and the long-term development strategy? They're either flying a desk, or enjoying a happy retirement.

ADDENDUM: We should also note that stealth does not completely eliminate the need for jamming support. EA-6Bs were included on more than a few missions flow by the F-117, for obvious reasons. As a rule, older radars are more effective against LO platforms that newer radars that operate at higher frequencies. Adding an EA-6B to the mission reduces that threat, because the jammer is highly effective against older acquisition radars, among other threats.


HSNormal said...

Request a few sentences on why Air Force can't but Growlers to meet their need. To the casual observer (me) it seems possible.

M. Simon said...


It is a Navy plane.

Automatic_Wing said...

It is a Navy plane.

So was the F-4. If the Growler is the only way to meet the requirement, it should be bought. We're willing to buy a French plane, why not a Navy plane?

Studd Beefpile said...

Agreed on the Growler, why so impossible? The f-18 also seems like it would make an ideal replacement for the f-16 in the strike fighter role after the JSF dies its messy messy death.

Corky Boyd said...


The F-4 was crammed down the Air Force's throat by MacNamara. They wanted to reopen the F-105 production line. The 105 was a fine plane if you didn't like going uphill. This was one of the very few decisions MacNamara made that made sense.

But it was a Navy plane.

Ken Prescott said...

"Request a few sentences on why Air Force can't but Growlers to meet their need."




Jim Howard said...

Thanks for the review. I'm a former EF-111 EWO, and have just a couple of observations:

1) The EF-111 had more jamming power (ten transmitters v. 4 on most Prowler missions) and covers the same frequency range as the Prowler.

2) Jamming support is required for every manned low observable penetration mission against any decent IADs.

Mike said...

It's the logistics, stupid.

Growlers aren't an option because to do so would require the Air Force to develop, from scratch, a support system for an aircraft they aren't going to buy very many of. Super expensive. Considering that the Air Force doesn't have enough money to buy enough airframes to cover its basic competencies (air defense, strike, airlift, tanking, etc.) spending big bucks on a brand new jamming aircraft is a luxury it doesn't have right now.

re: the original post, I don't have any operational experience with the Prowler, but it would appear that since the ALQ-99 system requires the use of external pods, loading up those hardpoints with HARMs would limit the jamming capability.

The whole situation is just further proof that one of the worst decisions the USAF made in the '90s was to retire the F-4Gs and (prematurely) the Spark Varks without viable replacements.

gizhou said...

In the air operations over the Balkans NATO could only employ 25 percent of its strike forces due to tha amount of jamming pods available. Nothing appears to have changed.

davod said...

It's the logistics, stupid.

Not of you have nothing else to fil the void.