When Hornets Growl

The new, supersonic face of e-warfare

No soft underbelly here: The EA-18G Growler hauls missiles, fuel tanks, and electronic warfare pods. (Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics)
Air & Space Magazine

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That realization trickles down to the people on the ground who get cover from the electronic warfare mission.

“You come back to the chow hall maybe a couple of weeks after working with [the troops] and actually sit and eat dinner with them,” says Lieutenant Kristen Levasseur, another Scorpion electronic warfare officer. “And they ask you, ‘Were you guys the ones out there that night?’ You say yes, and they tell you the crazy stories about what went on, and thank God you were there.”

E-WARFARE first broke out on the high seas during the 1901 International Yacht Races, now called the America’s Cup. Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi had planned to provide radio-telegraph updates from a boat to the Associated Press on shore. But a competitor, the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, eager for an exclusive, constructed a more powerful transmitter. As the racing yachts Columbia and Shamrock II tacked around Sandy Hook at the northern tip of the New Jersey coast, the airwaves that should have carried the Morse code dots and dashes of Marconi’s transmitter were instead saturated with noise from American Wireless, rendering his dispatches indecipherable.

It took just three more years for electronic jamming to truly go to battle. During the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, Russian radio-telegraph stations at Port Arthur on the Chinese coast interfered with wireless communication between Japanese ships trying to shell the Russian naval base there. A decade later, radio jamming went to the battlefields of World War I, but both sides opted more often to gather enemy transmissions. In World War II, Germany struck a blow in the expansion of e-warfare: On February 12, 1942, as the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen bolted from the bombed-out French port of Brest via the English Channel to the relative safety of German waters, all behind a curtain of German electromagnetic interference, English radar screens turned to gibberish. Known as the Channel Dash, it compelled the Brits to start waging e-warfare in earnest.

Among their first tasks was to address Bomber Command’s losses due to the early warnings enabled by German radar. The RAF turned to the unsung Boulton Paul Defiant, a two-seat, four-gun, one-turret fighter that failed to achieve the stardom of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.

“The Defiant was designed to pull alongside and below German bombers and pour rounds into the engines and fuel tanks, protected from return fire by the bomber’s own structure,” says Les Whitehouse, a British aircraft historian with the Boulton Paul Association. “It could out-turn the Hurricane, Spitfire, and Messerschmitt Bf109. What it could not do was outrun the Bf109.” This made the Defiant vulnerable, so the RAF assigned it to training, air-sea rescue, night patrol, and work with airborne radar countermeasures.

Five months after the Channel Dash, eight Defiants were flying formation over the south coast of England, using “Moonshine,” a new radar technology the Brits had created, to try to fool one of Germany’s powerful Freya early warning radars, this one near Cherbourg, France. Moonshine reradiated Freya’s radar waves back with a larger, identical pulse combined with the natural pulse off the Defiants, giving the appearance that a pack of a hundred heavy bombers was approaching. Before the last pulse of Moonshine had been sent, 30 German fighters were in hot pursuit of a phantom bomber group. Less than two weeks later, Defiants again fooled Luftwaffe ground controllers, who vectored 144 fighters toward an imaginary air raid while a dozen B-17s and their fighter escorts attacked the rail yards at Rouen, France.

“England was not the only country to get into airborne electronic countermeasures during the war,” says Daniel Kuehl, director of the Information Operations Concentration Program at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. “Everyone did. But the Brits and the Americans were the best at it, and they won. From World War II on, electronic warfare becomes essential to operating and winning a war.” The airborne jamming genie was out of the bottle, and the Defiant had shown that you didn’t have to be fast or glamorous to get the job done.

Which was good news for the homely EA-6B Prowler, the U.S. Navy’s primary jammer since 1971. The airplane, a Grumman A-6 Intruder stretched 4.5 feet and equipped with two more electronic warfare officers in shoulder-to-shoulder back seats, ripples with tumor-like bulges and pods housing the airplane’s jamming equipment. The subsonic Prowler, first flown in May 1968, had electronics that were tailored to counter Soviet-built radar stations launching the Mach 3.5 SA-2 radar-guided missiles that, early in the Vietnam conflict, were downing U.S. Air Force pilots in alarming numbers—one American airplane lost for every two SA-2s fired.

John McCarty, a tour guide and gallery lead at the National Electronics Museum in Washington, D.C., worked for Westinghouse in the Vietnam years developing electronic countermeasures. On visits to South Vietnam, he watched as strike groups returned to base missing airplanes downed by SA-2s. “Pilots made it clear that they would rather have a 500-pound bomb to drop than a piece of mysterious equipment hanging on a wing,” says McCarty. “But afterward they started seeing that aircraft flying with our jamming pods were returning and those [without] were not coming back as often, so the conclusion became obvious.” The Navy began calling up every jammer it could get.


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