For far too long, the commonly held image of U.S. electronic warfare (EW) capabilities is that of an adjunct to the real warfighters, the kinetic platforms and systems. Now, the world in which EW was nothing more than a supporting capability is over. Recent conflicts have underscored the centrality of EW to modern military operations across the spectrum. EW has become a, perhaps the, central method for defeating IEDs. In that context the Navy/Marine Corps have just about flown the wings off the EA-6B Prowler providing protection for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force has contributed with its jamming pods and the venerable EC-130. In the opening rounds of NATO operations against Libya, U.S. electronic warfare aircraft played a central role in defeating hostile air defenses. The U.S. continues to provide EW support to NATO forces.
Military electronic systems are everywhere. All but the most benighted militaries deploy electronics for air surveillance and defense, command and control, targeting and sustainment. Sophisticated IEDs have been deployed with a variety of electronic sensors and triggers. As the electronic communications and IT revolution spreads across the world and penetrates deeper into every nation’s social and economic systems, the scope for EW will only increase. Moreover, the line between commercial and military systems, particularly in the area of communications, will be increasingly blurred.
But the biggest change in the future will be the proliferation of precision strike weaponry in the hands of state and non-state adversaries. Precision systems have given the United States a battlefield edge for 20 years. However, no advantage lasts forever. Access to advanced precision weapons is becoming easier and their cost is declining. Thus, these weapons are proliferating to countries, and non-state actors. In addition, these same players are acquiring countermeasure capabilities that will allow them to challenge U.S. precision strike systems. Countering the precision weapons threat both on the battlefield and at longer ranges will become an increasingly important consideration in Pentagon planning.
As a consequence, electronic battle will come to dominate future engagements across much of the conflict spectrum. EW will become even more prominent in the future as the U.S. seeks not only to leverage its capabilities in stealth, sensing, C2 and precision strike but as it seeks to defeat an array of advanced, precision strike capabilities in the hands of U.S. adversaries.
Even today, the demand for deployed EW assets continuously exceeds planning factors. This means the military is wearing out existing capabilities. The military’s airborne offensive EW fleet now consists of a limited number of ICAP-equipped EA-6B Prowlers and the EA-18 Growler. Even with the Growler program well under way, the U.S. military faces a significant EW shortfall. The Air Force no longer has a dedicated EW platform. Moreover, most of its EW activities are associated with aircraft self-defense rather than the suppression of hostile electronic and sensor systems. The Air Force has been studying the deployment of a communications jamming capability on the Reaper. The Marine Corps will continue to operate the legacy Prowler ICAP III system until 2019. After this the Marines apparently plan to focus on capabilities to counter adversaries’ communications systems, only a part of the EW threat.
Perhaps most surprising is the lack of a plan by the Air Force to augment the inherent EW capabilities of the F-35. Despite the fact that it will constitute the overwhelming portion of the nation’s tactical air fleet, there is no plan to deploy additional jammers on the F-35. As a result, by the end of this decade, DoD will face a potentially critical EW challenge.
The EW community faces another challenge: a significant decline in future defense budgets. Several recent proposals have called for a trillion dollar reduction in defense spending over the next decade. Such a cut in resources for defense will challenge every DoD activity and program. Protecting the critical investments in current and planned EW could prove extremely challenging.
This is the context in which the Navy is pursuing the development and procurement of the next generation jammer to replace both the high and low band ALQ-99 tactical jamming pods. The design of the ALQ-99 predates the invention of the desk top computer. Clearly, electronics design and components have come a long way since then. The requirement for the jammer is clear. The larger issue that needs to be addressed is the implications of the coming shortfall in EW capabilities for expeditionary operations, for the fleet of Prowlers and Growlers and for investment in next generation capabilities.
Find Archived Articles: