Air combat: Air Force rethinks approach to 'electronic attack'.
"Seamless integration of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities" is the vision of future electronic warfare operations, said Lt. Col. James Albrecht, of the Air Combat Command Threat Awareness Branch.
Key to the reemergence of electronic warfare in the coming years are new unmanned aircraft and an upgraded B-52 bomber equipped with standoff jamming pods.
Electronic warfare in the future will encompass more than just jamming enemy radar, officials said. The long-term goal is to be able to use electrons to defeat targets that traditionally would be struck with kinetic bombs.
Although improved radar jamming is a centerpiece of the Air Force's electronic warfare vision, other capabilities may be on the horizon. "We are on the edge of this precipice where, we're evolving as a war fighting force to work non-kinetic capabilities," said Albrecht.
Gen. Hal Hornburg, who heads the Air Combat Command, said he views "electronic attack" as a powerful addition to the traditional arsenal of weapons.
Electrons literally could replace bombs one day, Hornburg speculated. "I look forward to the day where we can convince a surface-to-air missile that it's a Maytag in a rinse cycle ... I look forward to the day that from some capability from the air or from space we can do something like take an advancing phalanx of enemy armor and shut down its ignition systems."
Such technology exists, but has not yet been incorporated into mainstream military tactics, said Albrecht. The Air Force will continue to pursue technological breakthroughs in this arena, he said. "By spending the research and development funds to turn non-kinetic technologies into war fighting capabilities, the Air Force can be successful in its mission and, at the same time, reduce the overall cost of war."
More immediate concerns in electronic warfare involve the need to supplement the radar-jamming capabilities provided by the Navy's aging EA-6B Prowler, which took over the missions that the Air Force previously performed, before it retired the EF-111 Raven in 1995. At the time, Air Force planners decided the jammer would no longer be needed, assuming that the advent of stealth fighter jets would make radar jamming obsolete. That did not turn out to be the case, and the Prowler fleet quickly became overstretched as U.S. forces engaged in various conflicts during the past decade.
The Prowler is "a low-density, high-demand asset that is quickly aging," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the electronic warfare working group.
A December 2001 "analysis of alternatives" Pentagon study concluded that, rather than replacing the Prowler with a single system, the Defense Department would be better off if both the Air Force and the Navy developed complementary electronic warfare capabilities. "We took a broad, capabilities-based approach and focused on the Air Force concept of operations," said Albrecht. "The approach we would like to pursue includes standoff, penetrating escort and stand-in components."
Unmanned systems will figure prominently among Air Force electronic warfare assets, Hornburg said. "It's a wonderful niche area for UAVs.... I would just as soon see a computer chip die for its country than an airman."
One of the unmanned electronic warfare systems will be the MALD-J, a modified version of Raytheon's miniature air-launched decoy. The original MALD concept was a decoy designed to confuse enemy air defense systems. MALD-J will add a jamming capability to that mission.
A much more sophisticated electronic warfare capability could come with the joint unmanned combat aerial system (JUCAS), expected to be operational by 2009. The stealthy UAV will be designed for both conventional strike and electronic warfare missions. "JUCAS essentially represents the next generation of survivability against a threat," Albrecht said.
"I don't think Iraq or Afghanistan reflect the air-defense threat our forces may face in the future. We need to be prepared for this," said Pitts. "Unmanned technology is essential to defeating these advanced air defense systems as they go in, provide close-in jamming, which will allow our aircraft into the threat area, and save not only our aircraft, but the lives of our people."
Despite the apparent abundance of advanced technology, a cornerstone of the Air Force plan involves one of its oldest platforms, the B-52 bomber. The service intends to field an "electronic attack" B-52, equipped with jamming pods. Unlike the Prowler, which is an escort jammer that accompanies other strike aircraft, the B-52 would serve as a "standoff" system, operating at high altitudes and far from the targeted area.
Congress appropriated $21.5 million in fiscal year 2005 to begin retrofitting the B-52 standoff jammer with electronic-attack pods.
The Boeing Company recently outlined a plan to implement the upgrades in phases, or "spirals." Four aircraft will be outfitted during the first spiral. These aircraft will have a limited jamming capability. Spiral two will add six more planes. The Air Force is looking at eventually upgrading as many as 76 B-52s.
The jamming pod is being developed by BAE Systems. The pods will be carried under the wings, replacing fuel tanks. This has the added advantage that it "will not impact weapons carriage on the B-52," said Albrecht.
According to Scot Oathout, the program manager at Boeing, the fuel tanks stabilize the wings and mitigate the upper-wing stress, which is the limiting factor in the B-52 life span. The fuel tanks weigh 4,800 pounds. The pods will have to weigh about the same, according to Sam Klein, program manager for air and ground programs at BAE Systems.
"We have the unusual situation where the customer is saying that the accumulated weight isn't enough," he said. "Although they do load the current tanks that are out there with fuel, they never use the fuel. Right now our weight estimate for the pod ... is about 1,800 or 2,000 pounds below what they need."
An electronic attack capability combined with the weapons payload will make the new B-52 standoff jammer a formidable system, officials said. "The B-52 is normally the first penetrator in most of the modern warfare that we've engaged in. It launches its air-launched missiles and ... heads home," said Klein. The idea is "to put a standoff jamming capability on board and have it remain in the area."
Albrecht explained that the upgraded B-52 will combine firepower with the support jamming, making it a "significant step to our vision of integrating kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities."
A single B-52 will do the job currently performed by multiple EA-6Bs, replacing the services' dependence on this asset, noted Greg Crystal, deputy director of strategic initiatives at BAE Systems. "Four to six EA-6Bs equal one B-52." A single B-52, he added, "will be able to replace a fair number of EA-6Bs."
The idea of a B-52 standoff jammer, meanwhile, has met with some opposition, especially since the Navy is going ahead with its plan to develop a next-generation jamming aircraft, the EA-18G Growler. The Navy is investing billions of dollars in the Growler, and wants to avoid a perception that the program overlaps with the B-52 jammer.
The two projects will not be redundant, Albrecht told National Defense. "We think that our capabilities will be complementary, especially in support of the joint force commander."
Pitts stressed that both the Navy and the Air Force bring important capabilities to electronic warfare. "We're working closely with them to make sure we build a good product we can both use," he insisted. "We need to be a multi-systems approach. The B-52 certainly has a role, we just need to make sure all these systems work together."
Some critics cited the unproven nature of standoff jamming in comparison to the tried and true escort jamming provided currently by the EA-6B and in the future by the EA-18G.
"Standoff jamming has been proven capable by, among others, the EC-130H Compass Call," a modified C-130 cargo airplane, said Klein. "The core application of the SPEAR [the EC-130H jamming pod] activity is proven technology; it's been deployed. I wouldn't consider it to be a tremendous technology challenge."
The B-52 is attractive because of its "power, persistence and line of sight. In addition to those advantages, you have a weapons system with a life expectancy out to 2040 that can carry a wide variety of kinetic weapons," Albrecht said. It is "a big airplane; it's got a lot of space available."
Eric Gons is a cadet first class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs.