"Citizens in Support of the Sea Services"

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Electronic Warfare Finds A Future


SEAD, DEAD, ICAP-3, Prowlers, and Growlers



Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, and teaches in Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program.


Popular culture has provided the year 2001 with portentous meaning, courtesy of Stanley Kubrick's famous movie about mankind's future. Members of the Navy's electronic-warfare community do not expect anything quite so fantastic in 2001, but it is nonetheless a year full of portents for their profession. Among other things, 2001:

* Marks the 30th year since the Navy's EA-6B Prowler, now the U.S. military's sole airborne support jammer, achieved initial operating capability in 1971.

* Is the last year before the average age of the Prowlers still in the fleet reaches 20 years.

* Is the 10th anniversary of the delivery of the last Prowler in 1991.

* Is also the 10th anniversary of the start of Operations Northern and Southern Watch, the longest continuous overseas deployments of the Prowlers.

* And just may turn out to be the year that the Navy and its supporters learn precisely what the future holds for the Prowler--and for electronic warfare (EW) in general.

This is the year that the Pentagon completes a comprehensive study of future options for support jamming called the "Airborne Electronic Attack Analysis of Alternatives." Over a hundred personnel representing all of the military services have been laboring since February of 2000 to analyze how the military can preserve its edge in the arcane art of electronic warfare during the period 20102030.

The Defense Department calls the Navy-led analysis "the most important electronic warfare study presently ongoing," and has already spent millions of dollars on it. When it is completed later this year, it should provide the most definitive statement since the Cold War of what role electronic warfare will play in future combat, and what part the Navy will play in carrying out that role.

A Difficult Decade

As a mission area, electronic warfare has suffered more than most in the decade since the Cold War ended. Aside from the general decline in military forces and funding, the advent of low-observable (stealth) aircraft led some observers to believe that jamming and other electronic countermeasures were a dying art. If a radar cannot "see" a target, they reasoned, there isn't much need to jam it.

But stealthy aircraft have not materialized with the numbers or success that supporters expected. The A-12 attack plane was cancelled. The B-2 bomber was terminated at a mere 21 planes. Planned aircraft like the Joint Strike Fighter cannot be fully integrated into the fleet for another generation. In the meantime, U.S. air power, on land as well as at sea, will consist primarily of nonstealthy--and increasingly vulnerable--airframes.

To make matters worse, potential adversaries have proved more resourceful than expected at countering stealth. One of the very few allied aircraft shot down during the Balkan air war of 1999 was an F-117 stealth fighter. U.S. intelligence has determined that legacy Soviet early-warning radars, operating in low frequencies and long wavelengths, may be able to detect low-observable planes in some circumstances.

Little of this was apparent in the early 1990s, when the Air Force began preparing to exit the electronic-warfare business. Despite the crucial role its EW aircraft had played in facilitating strikes during Operation Desert Storm, the service retired its F-4G Wild Weasel defense-suppression planes in 1994, and its EF-111 Raven support jammers in 1998.

After that, the Navy owned the EW mission. In 1996, Congress authorized the service to bring 20 Prowlers out of storage and refurbish them for combat.

To augment its 11 carrier-based Prowler squadrons and four Marine squadrons, the Navy created four additional land-based squadrons to support the Air Force in future air campaigns (a fifth such squadron will be stood up in 2003). The Prowler fleet now consists of 124 planes, 104 of which are available for combat at any given time.

Judging from the extent to which Prowler aircraft and crews were overcommitted during Operation Allied Force, 124 is not enough--not, at least, if the U.S. military really expects to prosecute two major regional contingencies at the same time. But 124 includes all the airframes now available, so until a "follow-on support jammer" becomes available--sometime in the next decade, at best--the Navy will have to make do. Which means another difficult decade lies ahead.

Confusing Terminology

One of the biggest problems the electronic-warfare community faced throughout the last decade was self-inflicted. EW is mostly about jamming or deceiving enemy electronic devices in order to achieve control of the electromagnetic spectrum in wartime. That notion is not too difficult for most people to understand--especially in the information age--but the jargon used by practitioners to describe what they do has become impenetrably arcane.

For example, the "airborne electronic attack" mission area consists of three activities: (1) the nonlethal suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD); (2) the lethal suppression of enemy air defenses; and (3) self-protection. "Nonlethal SEAD," as it is often called, is just an obscure way of describing the electronic jamming of radars and related communications. "Lethal SEAD" means using missiles or other munitions to physically destroy enemy radars and related infrastructure. (Some practitioners now refer to lethal SEAD as "DEAD," or destruction of enemy air defenses.)

It also is not difficult to understand why members of Congress and other interested parties might have trouble wading through such jargon, especially when EW experts throw in other esoteric distinctions, such as the difference between electronic warfare and information warfare. Perhaps that is why few legislators, except for members of the House Electronic Warfare Working Group, even try.

This is an unfortunate situation, because policymakers need to understand how critically important electronic warfare is to every facet of air combat. Without the protection provided by a handful of Prowlers, U.S. strike aircraft could easily suffer horrendous losses against even moderately capable adversaries such as the Serbs or North Koreans. The neglect of EW might not matter so much if the capabilities of prospective adversaries were in decline, but in fact the threat is growing.

Emerging Dangers

During the early days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, allied air forces largely destroyed the Iraqi air-defense system. In the years since then, other potential adversaries have demonstrated an ability to learn from the mistakes made by the Iraqis. The first actual proof that air defenses had become harder to suppress came in 1995, when NATO aircraft attacked Bosnian Serb assets in Operation Deliberate Force. Although their equipment was dated, the Serbs successfully employed mobility, concealment, and surprise to protect their weapons, thereby denying NATO unfettered access to the airspace over Bosnia.

Four years later, in Operation Allied Force, NATO was able to destroy only three of Serbia's 22 surface-to-air missile batteries during the 78-day air campaign. In the words of Christopher Bolkcom, a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service, "bombing missions on Day 78 were potentially as dangerous as missions on Day One." The inability to suppress air defenses forced NATO to provide all strike aircraft, even the stealthy ones, with EW support.

Serbia's success was only partly due to clever tactics. Like other countries, Serbia had networked its weapons into an "integrated air defense system" that was intrinsically more resilient than the stand-alone batteries. Integrated defenses can more readily compensate for gaps in coverage while at the same time reducing the vulnerability of individual weapon sites. Instead of being fixed and visible, they often are mobile and deceptively based. Instead of operating continuously on the same frequency, they briefly pulse their energy while hopping randomly among frequencies.

One of the drawbacks of globalization is that potential adversaries now have little difficulty gaining access to the latest defense technologies. Digital communications, frequency hopping, multispectral discrimination, and other innovations are making defense suppression increasingly difficult--and, for that reason, making effective EW absolutely indispensable to the survival of one's own aircraft.

Prowler Upgrades Planned

For the Navy, this means that all of its strike aircraft will have to be equipped, for the foreseeable future, with self-protection equipment such as flares to distract heat-seeking missiles, chaff to confuse radar, and towed decoys that can mimic the aircraft's electromagnetic signatures. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet will host an integrated defensive EW suite that detects and deceives hostile sensors by using all of these methods.

But it is not possible to equip strike aircraft with all of the EW systems they would need to successfully counter advanced air defenses, so they will continue to require standoff and escort jamming from planes like the Prowler. The Navy has embarked on a series of upgrades to the Prowler's EW technology that are designed to assure its effectiveness until a new platform becomes available in the next decade.

The EA-6B itself has actually been in a state of continuous evolution since its inception, constantly changing in response to advances in adversary technology. The latest changes, known collectively as Improved Capability Three (ICAP-3), will for the first time give the Prowler the capability to selectively react to frequency-hopping radars. Rather than wasting energy jamming wavebands that might be in use, ICAP-3 planes will focus their energy when and where sensors are actually transmitting, quickly shifting frequencies as they do so.

The ICAP-3 aircraft also will have a sophisticated capacity to jam the communications links of integrated defense systems, depriving them of the synergy provided by networking. In effect, this new jamming capability will "dis-integrate" air defenses, isolating their various parts from command centers. ICAP Three also will have an enhanced capacity to precisely target antiradiation missiles used to protect the defense system, preventing the easy reconstitution of damaged assets.

Much of the "how to" is classified, but it is clear that the advances in capability that will be made possible by ICAP-3 depend in part on better links to offboard systems--intelligence-gathering aircraft such as the EP-3 Aries, surface assets, and perhaps even satellites operated by national agencies. By making the Prowler a key node in network-centric warfare, the latest upgrades assure it will be able to apply its EW capabilities with maximum effect.

Future Options

It is an ironic commentary on how uneven technological progress is that the most sophisticated EW equipment in the world will soon be operational aboard an airframe that traces its origins to the 1960s. The ongoing analysis of alternatives is expected to recommend rapid retirement of the Prowler after 2010.

The Navy's preference clearly is to replace the Prowler with an EW variant of the Super Hornet dubbed the F/A-18G "Growler." Service officials argue that the convenience of building and deploying a jammer with the same operational features and logistics tail as its main strike aircraft would reduce cost and permit huge efficiencies. Some Marine leaders favor using a version of the Joint Strike Fighter, but the notion of installing emitters on a stealthy airframe is controversial--especially a single-seat airframe that presumably would need to offload much of its EW workload.

Most experts regard talk of relying on unmanned aircraft or orbital platforms for jamming functions as premature. The ongoing analysis of alternatives probably will recommend one or more manned aircraft as the preferred solution for the follow-on support jammer. Having learned a hard lesson about the limitations of stealth in the skies over former Yugoslavia, the Air Force is expected to insist on recovering an organic jamming capability--presumably a modified F-15 or F-22. But the preponderance of support-jamming assets are likely to remain the property of the Navy.

The real question for the future is whether the neglected EW mission area will finally receive the sustained attention it deserves. The experience of recent years proves that electronic warfare in general, and support jamming in particular, will remain crucial to success in future air campaigns. A plan is in place to modernize the nation's airborne EW capabilities. Service leaders are unanimous in hoping that politics and/or shortsighted economic stringencies not subvert what operational experience clearly demands. *




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