America's Plan to Beat Russia or China's Air Defenses

Warrior Maven

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by [Sebastien Roblin]( "Sebastien Roblin")

While the U.S. military is unlikely to intentionally attack Russian forces in Syria, the situation highlights the importance of suppressing enemy air defensesone major tactic U.S. flyers have long relied upon is radar jamming, or saturating enemy radars with noise and false signals so that they cant track and fire upon friendly airplanes. The U.S. Navy has relied on the ALQ-99 jamming system for nearly half a century, even as opposing radars grew in ability. However, by the beginning of the next decade it will begin fielding the superior Next Generation Jammer, boasting significant electronic-attack and signal-intelligence capabilities.

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The powerful ALQ-99 tactical jamming pod first entered U.S. Navy service in 1971, carried by the EA-6 Prowler, an electronic-warfare variant of the A-6 Intruder carrier-based attack plane with a four-man crew. The U.S. Air Force eventually supplemented the Prowler with faster and larger [EF-111 Ravens]( "EF-111 Ravens")[5], informally known as Spark Varks because of the intense static buildup their jammers generated. Both planes proved effective in suppressing air defenses in Iraq and Libya. However, the Raven was withdrawn from service early in 1998, as the imminent retirement of the F-111 fleet made it prohibitively expensive to operate. Seventeen years later, the Navy [retired its aging EA-6s]( "retired its aging EA-6s") [6] in favor of new EA-18G Growlersspecial electronic-warfare variants of the F-18 Super Hornet. The two-seat Growlers are much faster and better armed, but must rely on automation to make up for the reduction in crew size.

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The Marine Corps will continue to fly its Prowlers until retirement in 2019, leaving the Growler as the sole remaining tactical jammer. Overall, demand for jamming aircraft has remained high even as the quantity has diminished. The jammers have even proven useful in the war against ISIS by [scrambling ISIS communications and disabling roadside bombs]( "scrambling ISIS communications and disabling roadside bombs") [8].

Jamming, however, is not a panacea against enemy radarsit sharply degrades their effective range but does not neutralize them entirely, and jamming aircraft have to be careful not to get too close to the defenses they are scrambling. Furthermore, while the analog-based ALQ-99 has abundant power, new radars boast greater power as well, and are more capable of switching frequencies and networking with friendly sensors to overcome the effects of jamming.

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Enter the Next Generation Jammer program, the first documents for which were released by the Pentagon in 2004, with the aim of bringing jamming into the digital age. The NGJ had originally been envisioned as an automated pod for use on single-seat F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, which would serve in all three branches of the military. However, this concept proved much more expensive and time-consuming than expectedwhich could summarize be the F-35 program in a nutshell. Instead, the Pentagon eventually decided to focus on re-equipping the Navy Growlers with the new jamming system, and in 2013 chose the design proposed by Raytheon over three major competitors.

The NGJ is designed to work against a full spectrum of radars, but different radars will require different countermeasures, which Raytheon is developing on a staggered schedule. The upcoming Increment 1 pods are designed to jam mid-band engagement radars commonly used by ground-based surface-to-air missiles, which pose the greatest threat to U.S. aircraft today. Once available, the EA-18 will carry two of the mid-band podsone under each wing.

However, the Growler will retain a single fuselage-mounted ALQ-99 pod optimized for jamming low-band radars until the Increment 2 NGJ pod is ready further into the 2020s. Low-band or surveillance radars have a broader scanning area, and are effective at tracking enemy aircrafteven stealth fighters!but are too imprecise for targeting weapons. Nonetheless, surveillance radars help the more narrowly focused engagement radars know where to look for enemies, and a forewarned engagement radar can ambush a stealth fighter at short range. Thus, as the number of stealth aircraft swells with the production of the F-35, jamming low-band radars will become more and more important.

Eventually, Raytheon also plans to develop an Increment 3 system for jamming high-band engagement radars, which are common on fighter planes.

The fifteen-foot NGJ pods employ an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar with [gallium nitride components]( "gallium nitride components") [10] that amplify radio energy. Program manager Capt. John Bailey [claimed in a seminar]( "claimed in a seminar") [11] that the NGJ can generate ten times the radiated isotropic power level of the preceding ALQ-99, and that the signal is cleaner, minimizing the collateral interference with friendly signals. Just as importantly, the NGJ can jam multiple frequenciesCaptain Bailey claims four times as manyand is designed to be an agile jammer, capable of analyzing new enemy signals and adjusting its own frequencies to counter them literally on the fly. Moreover, because the NGJ is a digital solid-state open-architecture system, it can be upgraded with new threat libraries of hostile hardware, allowing it to be easilyand cheaplyupgraded to match new adversary capabilities. Finally, the NGJ pods can do all of this without draining power from the Growler carrying it, thanks to its ram air turbine.

The jamming pods also reportedly come with additional bells and whistles, most notably the ability to spy on enemy communications. This would apparently allow the Growler to serve as a potential Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) platform, as well as enable it to double as a communication hub. The NGJ also reportedly comes with cyber-attack abilities to perform a network invasion by inserting data packets into adversary systems, a technique [that has been demonstrated by an Air Force EC-130]( "that has been demonstrated by an Air Force EC-130") [12].

Wireless Hacking In Flight: Air Force Demos Cyber EC-130
Wireless Hacking In Flight: Air Force Demos Cyber EC-130

NATIONAL HARBOR: Matthew Broderick in his basement, playing Wargames over a landline, is still the pop culture archetype of a hacker. But as wireless networks became the norm, new-age cyber warfare and traditional electronic warfare are starting to merge. Hackers can move out of the basement to the sky. In a series of experiments, the US Air Force has successfully modified its EC-130 Compass Call aircraft, built to jam enemy transmissions, to attack enemy networks instead. “We’ve conducted a series of demonstrations,” said Maj. Gen. Burke Wilson, commander of the 24th Air Force, the service’s cyber operators. “Lo and behold! Yes, we’re able to touch a target and manipulate a target, [i.e.] a network, from an air[craft].” What’s more, Wilson told reporters at the Air Force Association conference here, this flying wireless attack can “touch a network that in most cases might be closed” to traditional means. While he didn’t give details, many military networks around the world are deliberately disconnected from the Internet (“air-gapped”) for better security. You can try to get an agent or dupe to bring a virus-infected thumb drive to work, as reportedly happened with Stuxnet’s penetration of the Iranian nuclear program, but that takes time and luck. You unlock a lot more virtual doors if you can just hack a network wirelessly from the air. Israeli aircraft using BAE’s Suter system reportedly did just this to Syrian air defenses in 2007’s Operation Orchard, and the Navy is interested in the capability, but this is the first I’ve heard an Air Force general discuss it. Digital AESA radar can do much the same thing, as we’ve reported about the F-35. “That doesn’t mean that we may not still try to touch a target through a traditional networking set of capabilities, but to be able to go and use the other domains [e.g. from the air] I think is really the future,” Wilson said. The big picture here is not any one aircraft, but the ability to attack a single target simultaneously in multiple ways from multiple domains. That’s both high explosives and hacking, coming from cyberspace, from electromagnetic signals propagating through air and space, and — if you bring in the other services — from the sea and land as well. “In the past those have been fairly separate,” Wilson said. “What we’re seeing today is a power of being able to integrate those.” When Wilson gets back to his HQ in San Antonio on Monday, he said he’ll get an after-action report on the use of cyber at the latest Red Flag wargames. Cyber and other non-kinetic means “used to be… an afterthought” in Red Flag, he said. “Today it’s front and center.” “The focus over the last couple of years — [and] it’s really taken on a lot of momentum here over the last year — [is] integrating not just air capabilities, but air, space and cyberspace capabilities into the fight,” he said. This merger requires teaching traditional combat commanders what this new-fangled cyber stuff can do in the real world — part of the purpose of the EC-130 demonstration. Integration also requires teaching cyber personnel to think less like IT technicians and more like fighter pilots. “We’re bringing an operations culture and skillset to what has traditionally been an information technology mission,” Wilson said. “I think we have some of the best cyberspace operations talent in the world.” Another needed change is in intelligence. Cyberspace has been the focus of top-level strategic intelligence agencies like the NSA. Those agencies don’t typically collect the tactical and technical data on enemy combat systems required to identify vulnerabilities. They simply don’t have the manpower, said Wilson. The ongoing effort to build new cyber mission teams will help on that front, he predicted. For the Air Force’s goal of about 1,700 new cyber operators, “we’re about halfway through the build of the cyber mission force,” Wilson said. “At the end of this month we should have 17 teams at initial operating capability and three teams at full operating capability.”

Since being approved to develop the NGJ, the NGJ development process has proven relatively [fast and efficient]( "fast and efficient") [13]. However, a [Department of Testing report]( "Department of Testing report") [14] notes that the NGJ has yet to be tested in operational conditions and that the pods effects on the EA-18 flight performance are unclear. The report also expresses concern that the NGH pods may degrade the performance of the Growlers ALQ-218 receiver, decrease range and pose an electromagnetic hazard to the fighters AGM-88 antiradar missiles.

The NGJ Increment 1 jammers are intended to have initial operating capability around 2021. The Pentagon has already allocated $1 billion for this first batch, with several more billions likely to follow over time. Australia, meanwhile, has [invested]( "invested") [15] $192 million into the program, and intends to eventually fit them on its twelve new Growlers, which will complete delivery later this year.

Eventually, the Pentagon intends to revisit developing a NGJ pod specially for the F-35but that will likely wait until the late 2020s at the earliest. In the meantime, there is talk of fitting the NGJ to the Navy UCLASS drone to increase the number of available jamming platforms.

As radars and radar-guided antiaircraft missiles continue to grow in range and sophistication, jamming and other forms of electronic warfare will remain vital means for air power to survive over the battle spaces of the future. The Next Generation Jammer is the Pentagons attempt to counter new advances in air-defense radarswhile adding to its bag of electronic tricks.

[This story was originally published by The National Interest]( "This story was originally published by The National Interest")

Sébastien Roblin holds a masters degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for [War Is Boring]( "War Is Boring") [16].

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