WHIDBEY ISLAND, WASHINGTON: “Every two weeks, we get another Growler,” Cmdr. Christopher Middleton said at the Navy’s electronic warfare hub here. The Navy target is to buy 114 EA-18G Growler aircraft. And it’s those Growler aircraft that will be the cutting edge of future Naval strikes against future “anti-access area denial” defenses like those being built by China.
To break through such defenses, the Navy is very publicly working on a joint “AirSea Battle” concept with the Air Force, but the two services have taken starkly different approaches to defeating enemy radar.
The Air Force retired its last radar-jamming aircraft in 1998 and placed its bets on radar-evading stealth aircraft: the twin-engine F-22 Raptor and its single-engine cousin the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, both built by Lockheed Martin. The Navy has taken the exactly opposite path. While it will eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) acquire its version of the F-35, the Navy continues to buy both non-stealthy attack planes and powerful jamming aircraft to blind enemy radars: the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and its electronic warfare variant the EA-18G Growler, both built by Boeing.
Navy leaders have long been skeptical of stealth, and for good reason. Stealth certainly shrinks an aircraft’s radar return, but it cannot eliminate it. And because Moore’s Law doubles available computing power every 18 months, radar systems just keep getting ever better at detecting the subtle clues of a stealth plane’s presence. From a Navy perspective, the only sure way to keep a radar from seeing you is to jam it — and then, ideally, to blow it up.
To preserve that jamming capability, the Navy is investing in a “Next Generation Jammer,” and it is now more than two-thirds through its transition from the venerable EA-6B Prowler to the newer, sleeker much more capable Growler.
At last count, Middleton told reporters Wednesday, Whidbey Island has 79 EA-18Gs. 41 of those Growlers are in Middleton’s training squadron, VAQ-129, which trains electronic warfare aircrew and maintainers for the entire fleet. The rest are in six operational squadrons of five planes each, with a seventh squadron now in mid-transition from the old Prowler.
Six Navy EA-6B squadrons remain, but they’re all slated to move to the EA-18G as well. Meanwhile, Middleton’s unit has already retired all but 10 of the EA-6Bs it used for training, and it expects to graduate its last Prowler pilot in April 2014. (The Marine Corps, by contrast, will keep its Prowlers and replace them, eventually, not with Growlers but with its version of the F-35).
At this point, Middleton said, the real limiting factor for Navy electronic warfare is not aircraft but personnel — and the people he’s most short of are not the pilots to fly the planes but the maintainers to keep them flight-worthy. The personnel shortfall is “90 percent support,” not pilots, he told Breaking Defense. In fact, the fleet is so feverishly retraining Prowler mechanics to work on the Growler that Middleton’s unit has hired 202 contractors from L-3 to work on its remaining Prowlers.
So what’s so great about the new airplane? To start with, the Growler is a lot faster — it can even break the sound barrier, which the Prowler never could — and is more capable of defending itself against enemy aircraft. The Growler’s also a brand-new aircraft, which makes it much more reliable than the Prowler, which entered service in 1968. “These jets work all the time,” Middleton said.
Finally, the new plane is built to accommodate the latest electronic warfare equipment. Like most electronic-warfare officers, Middleton was maddeningly unspecific about these highly classified systems, but he would say that the new technology provides much more “fidelity”:
“I trust what it tells me it found,” Middleton said. On the old electronic warfare gear, “the operator had to sort through a larger set of ambiguities,” he explained. “You had to sort through signals of interest and ambiguous noise.” The more sophisticated computers on the Growler do much more of the work, allowing the new plane to get by with two crew instead of the Prowler’s four.
For all the futuristic technology, however, in many ways Navy electronic warfare is returning to its past. Historically, electronic warfare’s main mission was to jam a path through enemy radar to let the attack planes through. Since 9/11, however, both Prowlers and Growlers were heavily used as high-powered electronic surveillance platforms over Afghanistan and Iraq, hunting not anti-aircraft radars but insurgents with cellphones and radio-detonated roadside bombs.
“For a while there we got really good at ground support because that was what the nation needed,” said Middleton. (The commander wears a patch from his 2005 tour over Fallujah that reads: “we didn’t drop anything, and neither did you” — a reference to how rarely the aircraft actually dropped bombs during the guerrilla war.) “But we never gave up” training for the traditional missions, he emphasized. As the nation reorients towards the Pacific and the Navy in particular emphasizes AirSea Battle, the crucial factor is increasingly that high-tech, high-intensity, high-stakes electronic fight.
(Full disclosure: Boeing paid for Sydney’s travel, accommodations, and meals but they didn’t try to lecture him about the limits of stealth).