This week’s announcement that Raytheon has won the competition to develop the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer underscores the growing importance of electronic warfare in U.S. military strategy, and in particular the central role that the carrier-based EA-18G Growler will play in executing that strategy. Growler is an electronic-attack variant of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet built by Boeing that is designed to prevent enemy radar, missiles and communications networks from posing a threat to friendly aircraft. On-board systems detect hostile emitters and generate tailored signals that overwhelm or confuse enemy receivers, precluding successful tracking and targeting of U.S. aircraft. The plane also carries missiles that home in on and destroy threatening emitters.
Suppressing hostile radars and networks has long been a priority mission for America’s military, but that task has grown more difficult in recent years as new sensing and communications technologies became available to potential adversaries. For example, cellular devices are being used by terrorists to detonate improvised explosive devices and surreptitiously exchange information. Fast frequency-hopping radios are becoming increasingly common in foreign militaries. Agile radars and surface-to-air missiles with features designed to evade countermeasures are being fielded by countries like China. Growler is the only plane in the joint force capable of coping with all these threats.
The Navy’s new jammer will replace older equipment currently carried on the Growler that was not designed to address some of today’s emerging electronic threats. It is the last piece in a multi-step improvement of electronic-warfare capabilities that will make EA-18G the most capable electronic-attack plane in the world for the foreseeable future. There had been talk at one time of installing the Next Generation Jammer on fifth-generation fighters, but that plan has been deferred indefinitely and would be very costly at a time when military budgets are being drastically reduced. Thus it appears Growler is the only viable response to challenges that might otherwise deny the joint force access to critical regions such as Northeast Asia.
Fortunately, the EA-18G has high commonality with the multi-role Super Hornet, enabling it to perform both standoff and escort jamming in a wide range of warfighting scenarios. It provides a number of major performance improvements over legacy jamming aircraft, including self-protection capability in the form of agile on-board radars and air-to-air missiles built by Raytheon. It is networked with other friendly forces through secure datalinks that function even when the plane’s jammers are transmitting at maximum power, allowing it to more closely coordinate its operations with warfighters on the ground. Once Growler begins carrying the new jammer around 2020, it will be able to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum through mid-century.
The only real question about the EA-18G is whether the defense department is buying enough of them. The plan until recently was to cease production at 114 planes, which would not have been enough airframes to maintain the current number of electronic-attack squadrons on land and at sea. Recognizing that electronic warfare will become increasingly important as it converges with other missions like cyber warfare, Congress and the Pentagon have wisely agreed to keep the production line humming so that additional Growlers can be acquired. Even in a period of fiscal austerity, this is a crucial move if America’s military is to preserve global air dominance and access to vital overseas areas.
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