PENTAGON: While the Air Force and the Marines stake their future on a great leap forward to the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy is taking what one officer called “baby steps” into the future: a careful, incremental upgrade of electronic warfare systems to jam enemy radar instead of just hiding from it. The fleet is moving, slowly but surely, from 1960s-vintage EA-6B Prowlers carrying 1970s-vintage jamming pods — complete with vacuum tubes — to supersonic EA-18G Growlers armed, as of 2020, with a digital Next-Generation Jammer.

Despite persistent rumors the Navy will cut back its F-35 purchase, the service remains officially committed to a carrier-launched version of the F-35, the F-35C. They’re just not counting on the F-35 to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air defenses on its own.

“It’s a great capability for us to welcome to the [carrier] air wing,” Navy Capt. John Thompson said of the F-35C. (Thompson has more than two decades experience in the Prowlers and is now the service’s resident expert — requirements officer — for both Prowler and Growler on the Navy’s Pentagon staff.) “You have a fantastic mix,” he told Breaking Defense. That mix will be:

  • The new, stealthy F-35C;
  • The “very mature” F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a non-stealthy strike fighter the Navy is currently buying to replace its 1980s-vintage F/A–18A/B and C/D Hornets; and
  • The Super Hornet’s electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, currently replacing the EA-6B Prowler.

The Air Force will have a similar mix of stealth F-35As and non-stealthy F-15s and F-16s for years to come. Except for 14 powerful but lumbering EC-130 “Compass Call” turboprops, however, it has essentially gotten out of the jamming business.

By contrast, the Navy has made jamming a top priority. In the current issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, the Chief of Naval Operations himself made sure to hitch the Navy’s longstanding strengths in traditional electronic warfare to the sexy emerging area of cyberwar.

“The EM-cyber environment is now so fundamental to military operations and so critical to our national interests that we must start treating it as a warfighting domain on par with–or perhaps even more important than — land, sea, air, and space,” wrote Adm. Jonathan Greenert. “Wars increasingly will be fought in the EM spectrum and cyberspace, so we cannot treat EM-cyber capabilities as simply enablers for air, land, and space operations.”

Greenert expressed skepticism about stealth in an earlier Proceedings article this summer, and the Navy is investing heavily in jamming.

Currently, as part of what Thompson called the Navy’s “stepping stone,” “baby steps” approach, the Growler has a better electronic warfare sensor system (the ALQ-218 receiver) than the old Prowler, but, for now, it still carries the same jamming pod, the ALQ-99. This summer the Navy launched a competition for what it calls its Next-Generation Jammer, set to enter service on the Growler in 2020.

F-35 advocates argue you don’t need a dedicated jamming aircraft because the Joint Strike Fighter is so packed with digital technology that it can wage electronic warfare as well as carry bombs. (Click here for more from two F-35 fans on the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, analyst Robbin Laird and retired Air Force ISR chief David Deptula). That’s true, concedes Capt. Thompson — up to a point.

The digital radar technology called AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) allows the same transmitter to either look for the enemy or to aggressively jam his systems. That double-edged sword, in fact, is the core of the future Next Generation Jammer, explained the jamming expert on the CNO’s staff, Cmdr. Dave Edgarton, who like Capt. Thompson is a 20-plus-year veteran of Prowlers: “It allows us to use the modern technologies that are available in AESA radars and leverage them for electronic attack,” Edgarton said.

But “any generic AESA” is not the same as a purpose-built jammer, Thompson emphasized. Plenty of airplanes have AESA, not just the F-35 but current Navy Super Hornets and Air Force F-15s. To act as jammers, though, “they need the right processing, waveform generation [i.e. radar frequency, wavelength, etc.], power, cooling,” he said. “To say that the AESA air-to-air radar has the same capabilities as a Next-Generation Jammer is mixing apples and oranges.”

The AESA on the F-35, for example, is built to spot air and ground targets, with jamming capability as what Cmdr. Edgarton called a fortunate “by-product.”

“It’s optimized to be a targeting radar; the fact that it can also jam is fantastic,” Capt. Thompson agreed. But the same basic AESA technology, with a differently sized antenna to generate different frequencies and wavelengths, “backed by different processing, different power, different cooling, and purposely built to be a jammer… would have much greater capabilities.”

That’s why the Navy sees the Next-Generation Jammer as critical. Navy electronic warfare experts have been upgrading the current ALQ-99 and inventing new tactics for it for decades, but now, “we cannot squeeze any more out of it,” Thompson said. “Our main limiting factors [are] the array itself, power generation, and the processing, [not] doing the math fast enough.”

Potential enemies around the world are now upgrading to AESA radars, Thompson said, and “to keep pace with them the jammer has to make the same leap, from travelling wave tubes” – a specialized form of vacuum tube found in the ALQ-99 – “into transistor modules.”

There’s no way to backfit this new technology to the old ALQ-99, Thompson said. “We would’ve if we could.”

While in theory it might be possible to hang a new, next-generation jammer off the old Prowlers, the EA-6Bs have about 10,000 flying hours of wear apiece, they’re subsonic (except in a steep dive), and their bulky, 1960s design is painfully easy to spot on radar. The sleek new EA-18Gs are faster, they’re more agile, and while not stealthy to anywhere the same degree as the F-35, they’re at least less radar-reflective than the bulbous Prowlers. The new planes are also built from the ground up to accommodate modern digital electronics from AESA to secure datalinks (called Link-16) to helmet-mounted targeting displays.

As a result, “we can use Growlers in ways we cannot use Prowlers,” Thompson said. “We’re able to use it much more aggressively.”

F-35 advocates would say all those improvements are still not enough: Without true stealth — the kind that has to be designed into an aircraft from the beginning, as on the F-35 — the Navy’s Super Hornets will be too easily spotted and shot down by cutting-edge “anti-access/area denial” defenses, even with Growlers on jamming duty. The Navy thinks it can still keep non-stealth planes alive, both by escorting them with dedicated jamming aircraft and by arming them with longer-ranged missiles so they don’t have to penetrate as deeply into enemy airspace to hit their targets.

On the flipside, in a real-world operation, Air Force F-35s would also enjoy Navy Growler support if the joint-force commander decided that they needed it. That’s especially true because the two services are working hard to coordinate their approach to what they call the future: AirSea Battle. So if the Air Force has bet wrong, and the F-35’s stealth and jamming capabilities don’t hold up against ever-improving radar systems, they may have to count on the Navy’s electronic warfare investments, too.


  • Lop_Eared_Galoot

    The F-35 is going nowhere without EWP as a means to encapsulate external weapons carriage at something less than full drag/signature costs. Add to this ram or rocket boosted variants of existing munitions (i.e. switch to Meteor with such a huge impulse second increase that the slow acceleration doesn’t matter and augment the glide wings of GBU-53/B with an AASM-like rocket) and you might have a kludge which could carry us to the point where real DEWs, like the Guardian, become cheap enough to form a KT boundary obstacle to the continued costs as vulnerability of manned systems altogether.

    That said, the cost of ‘expanding the bays’ to take 2 AMRAAM (while dumping all A2G ordnance) is simply a specious cover for the reality of a _range limited_ failure of supposed DEW capability in L-Band as a means to aggressively insert bad data in the backend of dated radars.

    If the F-35 HPM/HERF is operative in the 40-60GHz range then that alone will limit it to attenuation effects (as the number of elements on the APG-81 band-dedicated to the effect) from ever being a capable roll back in an era of 200-300km capable systems. As well as systems which use ground launch variants of A2A MRM from silent boxes distributed throughout the defended area in a ‘snake at your feet’ condition.

    The S-400 is expensive. The MRM-in-a-box is not. Certainly not compared to the acquisition and training costs of the intercept to launch such weapons conventionally, effectively.

    Now, once you look at the Boeing EWP and compare it with the Terma MMP and ALQ-99 equivalents-

    You see that the Boeing pod is far closer in size and volumetrics enclosure to the ALQ-99 and thus -much- more likely to be useful on the centerline as a means to house the external aperture systems _only_, for NGJ.

    Remember, you are going to be wrapping an AESA around the circumference of the pod, probably using techniques similar to the XTRA and other ‘smart skin’ systems. And these spatial as well as operating bandwidth concerns are going to take away all of your pod space in a hurry.

    Which is why you want the pod on the centerline to begin with because it can be made more rigid and thick to allow techniques generation to be fed into the active arrays from significantly larger cooling and power source options in the weapons bays.

    Time to face facts folks: The F-35 is not a fighter. It will never be a fighter. It’s HPM is unproven and likely not going to work against actively fenestrated systems which will track and kill the platform using long-wave EWR cued systems fired from the ‘jammers’ feet over secure ground links that ALSO cannot be broken into. Because they are LOS laser or tight microwave.

    Whether the F-35 was ever a good idea as an F-117-with-AMRAAM followon with equivalent laydown of GBU-31 instead of GBU-27 doesn’t matter.

    What matters is that it cannot penetrate existing, let alone coming-soon IADS due to massive changes in the way the civilian networking lets us talk to the kill effectors without an engagement radar acting as mediator inbetween.

    Even if these networks are fully jammed, to the eyeballs, a man with an optical sight next to a NASAMs type launch box can put a 9M96 or PAC-3 or MICA or Adder weapon into the target cube which defines a potential NEZ.

    Just by overflight.

    The weapon which will, partly, negate this capability are available but won’t fit into the F-35’s weapons bays in the density needed to win.

    Which means that we’re going to have to go to a four station EWP with 2 Meteor based weapons and a 4-shot BRU-61 of small diameter bombs. Or a straight up 4 shot loadout of the ram-AAM alone. Acting as a powered IAM to kill targets spotted by drones. Imaged by APG-81. And slam-dunked by Quick Bolt enabled (AGM-88E) technology strapped on the front end of a new generation, ‘standard’ of dual role DEAD and A2A weapons.

    Before bombing to scrap whatever primary mission targets we have from a BRL that is anything up to 60nm short of the DMPI.

    ONCE you have that kind of ‘better to standoff than lie about LO’ understanding of how useful the F-35 observables performance is (compared to natural attenuation with ranged munitions) you can start to tailor, not just the power thresholds but also the operational band defeat and specific emitter attack strategies as a doctrinal stepping stone approach to putting sticks in the eyes of any given threat networks through their sensors or their commo.

    Using an NGJ which also employs the same EWP stealth-enclosure, on a dedicated jammer platform in a manner similar to that of the EF-111A.

    But you have to take the ‘3 footer’ (big boy) leap of acknowledging that the F-35’s advertised design capability of stealth penetration to a direct, ballistic, delivery of JDAM is simply the victim of changing times as a new century of IADS development.

    Baby steps are for infants in the military business. The U.S. is now a seasoned adult warfighter community and should act with more boldness of decision in light of the obvious problems that the F-35 poses to us.
    You want to ‘dominate the EMS’ as Electro Magnetic Spectrum? Fine. Start by admitting /why/ the F-35 needs the help.

  • Horn

    The Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted 45 minutes.