As the U.S. Navy expands its EA-18G Growler operations, pilots remain keen on the aircraft’s electronic warfare performance.
The service says it has enough Boeing Growlers to meet requirements, but some analysts disagree, and the Pentagon is conducting an electronic warfare study that could require the acquisition of more EA-18Gs, the only aerial electronic attack weapon in the U.S. quiver.
There is no doubt Navy pilots appreciate what the Growler brings to a carrier strike group. “I finally felt like I had overwhelming advantage in the tactical arena,” says Capt. Jeffrey “Caesar” Czerewko, former air group commander aboard the CVN 76 USS Ronald Reagan, and now the Pentagon’s director of battlespace awareness.
A veteran F/A-18 pilot, he notes that Growlers have the capability he and other pilots wanted when they were flying as far back as the F/A-18C. “It has all the things I wish we had had in the ‘Charlie’ back in the day,” Czerewko says. He touts “the way it ‘talks’ with other airplanes. It’s incredible how much better we are with airborne electronic attack.”
And pilots are only now starting to tap that capability. “I don’t think we’ve even cracked the nut yet on how much a Growler can do,” Czerewko adds. “In a classified discussion, it’s eye-watering. I wish we had more. I wish everybody agreed we should have more.”
The Navy needs additional EA-18Gs, affirms the Hudson Institute, noting in a recent report that the force requires 11 EA-18Gs for each of the Navy’s 10 carrier and five expeditionary squadrons, a total of 165.
“The Navy’s current program of record calls for a total of 135 EA-18Gs,” or nine per squadron, the institute reports. “The Navy would need to procure an additional 30 EA-18Gs.” The Navy will have to rely more on EA-18G Growlers for future jamming missions, institute analysts say.
“Equipped with the Next Generation Jammer [under development by Raytheon], the EA-18G will be capable of providing coherent jamming at increased power, interrupting enemy effects chains,” the institute says. “This capability assists the penetration of not only F/A-18E/F aircraft or other joint force aircraft, but also F-35Cs. The proliferation of [enemy] L-band radars and other lower-frequency fire-control radars would counter the X-band optimization of the F-35C. The ability of the EA-18G to jam these other radars allows carrier strike and air warfare packages the ability to counter enemy sensors and provide jamming coverage for weapons, significantly increasing weapon probability of arrival.”
The Growler’s success is prompting a rethinking of its operations. “The Navy, for instance, is developing tactics for E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft to use passive capabilities to geolocate threat emitters alone or in concert with other aircraft through the Navy Integrated Fire Control (NIFC) network,” the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) says in its recent report, “Winning the Airwaves: Regaining America’s Dominance in the Electromagnetic Spectrum.”
CSBA says, “Using NIFC, passive targeting information can be passed from an E/A-18G via a Link-16 secure tactical data link to an E-2D AWACS aircraft and then to surface combatants via the Cooperative Engagement Capability data link to enable them to attack targets with long-range cruise missiles.”
The Navy is strengthening the Growler’s bite. A Growler pilot fired an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile last fall off the coast of Virginia during a Tactical Support Wing training event, marking the first time electronic attack squadron VAQ-209 employed the Raytheon-built missile.
Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions is working toward improving the technology that operates the Growler’s low-bandwidth transmitter, a vital sensor system. Designed to increase the ALQ-99 jamming sensor system’s reliability and availability, the low-band transmitter replaced two transmitters to jam low-frequency radar and communication targets and is integrated on Growlers and U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers (due to be retired in 2019).
The AN/ALQ-99 intercepts and automatically processes radar signals and manages the system’s transmitters to jam radar threats.
With the technological and operational growth and development of active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Cobham sees the potential for improvements to the transmitter system, says Jill Kale, sector president. The company is taking this position in light of advancements in digital-receiver technology, especially at the front end, Kale says.
Cobham will wait and see how requirements develop, she notes. “I don’t like the ‘build it they will come’ approach.”
Analysts say that as AESA technology becomes the norm for antenna arrays, and transmit-receive modules are increasingly positioned at the array face, this is a good time for Cobham to upgrade its systems. The antennae and transmitter/receivers Cobham is building today, analysts note, are for legacy systems such as the ALQ-99 that do not include these technologies.