When Hornets Growl
The new, supersonic face of e-warfare.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
(Page 4 of 4)
The Prowler’s steam gauges and thumb wheels have been replaced in the Growler with digital, flat-panel displays. And compared to the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, a fully loaded G is 1,400 pounds heavier, with 66 more antennas, an additional half-mile of wiring, and 1.5 million more lines of software code. A Link 16 data exchange network lets the Growler send and receive data with other airplanes on the fly, allowing Growler crews to effectively “peer over the shoulders” of other airplanes in the strike group in real time to see what their radars and other data gathering systems see. The crewmen wear helmet-mounted cueing systems that display targets and flight data on the inside of the visor to enhance their head-up awareness (see “Hard Hat Zone,” Then & Now, Aug./Sept. 2008). The Growler’s electronic countermeasures system, called Improved Capabilities (ICAP) III, was originally deployed on the Prowler. To make ICAP III work in the Growler, engineers had to reconfigure its ALQ-218 jammer. The system’s main receiver, called the “football” when it was perched like the Super Bowl trophy atop the Prowler’s vertical tail, has been split into a pair of sleeker antennas, one on each of the Growler’s wingtips. Rounded off at the front and back, the receivers have the same weight and center of gravity—but slightly higher drag—as the AIM-9 air-to-air missiles that Super Hornets carry there. Because its brawny electronics had to go somewhere, the ALQ-218 also robbed the Growler of its 20-millimeter Vulcan cannon. Still, the G carries air-to-surface missiles to take out radar dishes and other emitters, and air-to-air missiles to confront airborne threats.
With its wingtips occupied by the new antennas, the Growler still has nine external points for pods, fuel tanks, and missiles (see p. 44). The most recognizable payloads are the detachable ALQ-99 jammer pods, each with a ram air turbine, a passive mini-propeller on the nose of the unit that spins in the slipstream to generate its electricity. The innards of the 15-foot-long, canoe-shaped devices have been updated several times since their introduction. The pods limit the Growler’s speed, but chances are, with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that reportedly can see 200-plus miles, the crew won’t get surprised by even a high-speed adversary.
The Growler hasn’t had time to compile a track record, and the Navy isn’t saying when it might deploy to Afghanistan. In one of the world’s poorest countries, where there are virtually no enemy missiles or anti-aircraft radars, the EA-18G might be a bit overqualified. But it can jam a Taliban cell phone call, or a signal from an electric garage-door opener intended to set off a roadside bomb. Some reports on the ground say that EA-6B Prowlers can now do “courtesy burns,” pre-flying the route of a truck convoy, emitting electrons all along to trigger buried explosives. The Navy offers no comment on such a capability.
Militaries sometimes tend to fight the last war, because it is the war they know. E-warfare is the realm in which they can least afford to do that. Yet, in times of relative peace, jamming advocates are forced to speak up to keep the funding flowing for research and development.
“Electronic warfare is something that everybody wants when you’re in combat, but nobody is willing to pay for in peacetime,” says Jack Dailey. “It’s extremely difficult to justify because it has to be based upon handling a threat that may not have been developed yet.”
The Navy has been sharing a few details about its Next Generation Jammer program, which will replace the ALQ-99 on the Growler at first, and then on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Central to the jammer will be developments in AESA radars that promise much wider frequency coverage, better identification of sophisticated waveforms, and more seamless integration between the AESA and jammer.
And while it’s difficult to anticipate if the nemesis will be a cell phone or an advanced missile radar, one thing is for certain: the Navy will need the very best electronic countermeasures available to watch, listen, and act.
When D.C. Agle isn’t writing, he’s doing his best to refrain from growling as he changes his five-monthold twins’ diapers for the umpteenth time.