Article Published in the Wings of Gold
A radio station in the nation’s capital recently introduced a new format called “jammin’ oldies”. It’s mostly vintage Motown hits. But if you knew a lot about electronic warfare (EW) and only a little about music, you might think the new format is focused on the Navy’s fleet of EA-6B Prowlers. Prowlers are kind of like those old Motown hits: they’re popular classics that occasionally get updated, but it’s been a long time since any new ones
were made. And like the Supremes, they’re starting to show their age.
That’s a problem because the Prowlers have become increasingly important to national security as they aged. With the retirement of the Air Force’s EF-111 Ravens, the EA-6B is now the only dedicated airborne tactical jammer in the U.S. inventory suitable for suppression of enemy air defenses. The production line closed in 1991, leaving a fixed force of 123 planes today. On a good day, about a hundred are operational worldwide. The rest are being rewinged, electronically upgraded, and so on.
A hundred Prowlers is enough to meet peacetime jamming needs. But as the recent Kosovo air campaign demonstrated, it is barely enough to cover standing commitments plus one major theater war. U.S. strategy requires the ability to fight two wars nearly simultaneously.
If the Air Force had stuck with its original concept of operations in the Kosovo campaign – – which substituted stealth for EW in some strike packages – – the shortfall in jamming capability would not have been so pronounced. But early in the war the service decided all of its strike aircraft including the stealthy ones needed airborne jamming support.
The EA-6B’s are the only systems available to provide that support, so they saw heavy use over former Yugoslavia. In fact, fully a third of available Prowler assets worldwide were committed to the fight. Clearly, things haven’t changed much since Rear Admiral John (Carlos) Johnson, the head of aviation plans and requirements, complained in 1997 that the EA-6Bs were”flying their lives away” in the Balkans.
This situation can’t continue indefinitely. With no new Prowlers in the pipeline and the existing fleet being worn down by heavy operating tempo, it is time to start thinking about a “Follow-On Support Jammer”. The Kosovo emergency supplemental funding legislation passed by Congress in the spring provided $16 million to begin an “analysis of alternatives” as to what should follow the Prowler. The formal analysis is expected to take two years, but it’s not hard to see what the likely recommendation will be: develop an electronic-warfare variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, probably designated the “G”.
It’s generally considered bad form to state the obvious in these exercises before everybody has had their say, so the Navy is trying real hard not to say the next jammer should be a Super Hornet. That might irritate the Air Force, which clearly is going to have to rethink its approach to EW and might resent having a Navy plane forced on it early in the process. (A May report by a Pentagon panel complained that Air Force electronic-warfare skills have “atrophied”). There are also constituencies in the research community that have some “gee-whiz” ideas for leaping ahead to revolutionary EW solutions, like unmanned aerial vehicles or space-based systems.
But even a cursory review of what is needed and when suggests the Super Hornet is the only real solution to the requirement. First of all, consider the timelines and likely budgets. A two-year analysis of options won’t be completed until fiscal year 2002, and the Navy says it needs to have a replacement jammer operational in numbers by 2015 (it really needs it sooner, given what Kosovo showed about the ability of existing EW assets to support two theater wars). How likely is it that the sea services could find enough money to develop and produce a new airframe for the mission in little more than a decade? Not very. So developing a derivative of anexisting aircraft seems unavoidable.
Now consider the operational requirements. The next jammer needs to be able to continuously accomplish a range of complex EW tasks in fluid tactical conditions while aintaining constant connectivity with friendly forces – – despite the enemy’s own EW efforts. The probability that any combination of unmanned aerial vehicles could dependably do this in the necessary timeframe is essentially zero. Space-based solutions are even less believable.
So it has to be a manned platform, and the platform has to be able to keep up with the strike assets it is supporting. That eliminates rotary-wing or fixed-wing/propeller-driven solutions like the V-22 Osprey or E-2C Hawkeye. It also has to be able to handle a heavy on-board EW workload, since continuous linkage to off-board processing sources can’t be assured. Automation may eliminate the need for four crew positions, but not for two. Finally, it needs to be able to operate in the absence of access to land bases, a requirement that pretty much disqualifies any Air Force airframe.
What’s left when all these hurdles are surmounted is the Super Hornet. It’s the only airframe with the sea-basing, speed, interoperability and guaranteed availability to do the job. A Super Hornet solution maximizes the potential for operational and logistical synergies while minimizing the time and cost of developing a new jammer (ICAP-3 equipment can simply beintegrated into the F/A-18F airframe).
The Super Hornet is really the only solution that makes sense in an acceptable time frame. Maybe a formal two-year analysis of alternatives is needed to satisfy the bureaucrats, but the endgame can already be seen today.
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