Electronic Warfare Finds A Future
SEAD, DEAD, ICAP-3, Prowlers, and Growlers
By LOREN B.THOMPSON
Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington
Institute, and teaches in Georgetown University's National Security
Popular culture has provided the year 2001 with portentous meaning,
courtesy of Stanley Kubrick's famous movie about mankind's future. Members
of the Navy's electronic-warfare community do not expect anything quite so
fantastic in 2001, but it is nonetheless a year full of portents for their
profession. Among other things, 2001:
* Marks the 30th year since the Navy's EA-6B Prowler, now the U.S.
military's sole airborne support jammer, achieved initial operating
capability in 1971.
* Is the last year before the average age of the Prowlers still in the
fleet reaches 20 years.
* Is the 10th anniversary of the delivery of the last Prowler in 1991.
* Is also the 10th anniversary of the start of Operations Northern and
Southern Watch, the longest continuous overseas deployments of the
* And just may turn out to be the year that the Navy and its supporters
learn precisely what the future holds for the Prowler--and for electronic
warfare (EW) in general.
This is the year that the Pentagon completes a comprehensive study of
future options for support jamming called the "Airborne Electronic
Attack Analysis of Alternatives." Over a hundred personnel
representing all of the military services have been laboring since
February of 2000 to analyze how the military can preserve its edge in the
arcane art of electronic warfare during the period 20102030.
The Defense Department calls the Navy-led analysis "the most
important electronic warfare study presently ongoing," and has
already spent millions of dollars on it. When it is completed later this
year, it should provide the most definitive statement since the Cold War
of what role electronic warfare will play in future combat, and what part
the Navy will play in carrying out that role.
A Difficult Decade
As a mission area, electronic warfare has suffered more than most in
the decade since the Cold War ended. Aside from the general decline in
military forces and funding, the advent of low-observable (stealth)
aircraft led some observers to believe that jamming and other electronic
countermeasures were a dying art. If a radar cannot "see" a
target, they reasoned, there isn't much need to jam it.
But stealthy aircraft have not materialized with the numbers or success
that supporters expected. The A-12 attack plane was cancelled. The B-2
bomber was terminated at a mere 21 planes. Planned aircraft like the Joint
Strike Fighter cannot be fully integrated into the fleet for another
generation. In the meantime, U.S. air power, on land as well as at sea,
will consist primarily of nonstealthy--and increasingly
To make matters worse, potential adversaries have proved more
resourceful than expected at countering stealth. One of the very few
allied aircraft shot down during the Balkan air war of 1999 was an F-117
stealth fighter. U.S. intelligence has determined that legacy Soviet
early-warning radars, operating in low frequencies and long wavelengths,
may be able to detect low-observable planes in some circumstances.
Little of this was apparent in the early 1990s, when the Air Force
began preparing to exit the electronic-warfare business. Despite the
crucial role its EW aircraft had played in facilitating strikes during
Operation Desert Storm, the service retired its F-4G Wild Weasel
defense-suppression planes in 1994, and its EF-111 Raven support jammers
After that, the Navy owned the EW mission. In 1996, Congress authorized
the service to bring 20 Prowlers out of storage and refurbish them for
To augment its 11 carrier-based Prowler squadrons and four Marine
squadrons, the Navy created four additional land-based squadrons to
support the Air Force in future air campaigns (a fifth such squadron will
be stood up in 2003). The Prowler fleet now consists of 124 planes, 104 of
which are available for combat at any given time.
Judging from the extent to which Prowler aircraft and crews were
overcommitted during Operation Allied Force, 124 is not enough--not, at
least, if the U.S. military really expects to prosecute two major regional
contingencies at the same time. But 124 includes all the airframes now
available, so until a "follow-on support jammer" becomes
available--sometime in the next decade, at best--the Navy will have to
make do. Which means another difficult decade lies ahead.
One of the biggest problems the electronic-warfare community faced
throughout the last decade was self-inflicted. EW is mostly about jamming
or deceiving enemy electronic devices in order to achieve control of the
electromagnetic spectrum in wartime. That notion is not too difficult for
most people to understand--especially in the information age--but the
jargon used by practitioners to describe what they do has become
For example, the "airborne electronic attack" mission area
consists of three activities: (1) the nonlethal suppression of enemy air
defenses (SEAD); (2) the lethal suppression of enemy air defenses; and (3)
self-protection. "Nonlethal SEAD," as it is often called, is
just an obscure way of describing the electronic jamming of radars and
related communications. "Lethal SEAD" means using missiles or
other munitions to physically destroy enemy radars and related
infrastructure. (Some practitioners now refer to lethal SEAD as
"DEAD," or destruction of enemy air defenses.)
It also is not difficult to understand why members of Congress and
other interested parties might have trouble wading through such jargon,
especially when EW experts throw in other esoteric distinctions, such as
the difference between electronic warfare and information warfare. Perhaps
that is why few legislators, except for members of the House Electronic
Warfare Working Group, even try.
This is an unfortunate situation, because policymakers need to
understand how critically important electronic warfare is to every facet
of air combat. Without the protection provided by a handful of Prowlers,
U.S. strike aircraft could easily suffer horrendous losses against even
moderately capable adversaries such as the Serbs or North Koreans. The
neglect of EW might not matter so much if the capabilities of prospective
adversaries were in decline, but in fact the threat is growing.
During the early days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, allied air
forces largely destroyed the Iraqi air-defense system. In the years since
then, other potential adversaries have demonstrated an ability to learn
from the mistakes made by the Iraqis. The first actual proof that air
defenses had become harder to suppress came in 1995, when NATO aircraft
attacked Bosnian Serb assets in Operation Deliberate Force. Although their
equipment was dated, the Serbs successfully employed mobility,
concealment, and surprise to protect their weapons, thereby denying NATO
unfettered access to the airspace over Bosnia.
Four years later, in Operation Allied Force, NATO was able to destroy
only three of Serbia's 22 surface-to-air missile batteries during the
78-day air campaign. In the words of Christopher Bolkcom, a defense
analyst at the Congressional Research Service, "bombing missions on
Day 78 were potentially as dangerous as missions on Day One." The
inability to suppress air defenses forced NATO to provide all strike
aircraft, even the stealthy ones, with EW support.
Serbia's success was only partly due to clever tactics. Like other
countries, Serbia had networked its weapons into an "integrated air
defense system" that was intrinsically more resilient than the
stand-alone batteries. Integrated defenses can more readily compensate for
gaps in coverage while at the same time reducing the vulnerability of
individual weapon sites. Instead of being fixed and visible, they often
are mobile and deceptively based. Instead of operating continuously on the
same frequency, they briefly pulse their energy while hopping randomly
One of the drawbacks of globalization is that potential adversaries now
have little difficulty gaining access to the latest defense technologies.
Digital communications, frequency hopping, multispectral discrimination,
and other innovations are making defense suppression increasingly
difficult--and, for that reason, making effective EW absolutely
indispensable to the survival of one's own aircraft.
Prowler Upgrades Planned
For the Navy, this means that all of its strike aircraft will have to
be equipped, for the foreseeable future, with self-protection equipment
such as flares to distract heat-seeking missiles, chaff to confuse radar,
and towed decoys that can mimic the aircraft's electromagnetic signatures.
The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet will host an integrated defensive EW suite
that detects and deceives hostile sensors by using all of these methods.
But it is not possible to equip strike aircraft with all of the EW
systems they would need to successfully counter advanced air defenses, so
they will continue to require standoff and escort jamming from planes like
the Prowler. The Navy has embarked on a series of upgrades to the
Prowler's EW technology that are designed to assure its effectiveness
until a new platform becomes available in the next decade.
The EA-6B itself has actually been in a state of continuous evolution
since its inception, constantly changing in response to advances in
adversary technology. The latest changes, known collectively as Improved
Capability Three (ICAP-3), will for the first time give the Prowler the
capability to selectively react to frequency-hopping radars. Rather than
wasting energy jamming wavebands that might be in use, ICAP-3 planes will
focus their energy when and where sensors are actually transmitting,
quickly shifting frequencies as they do so.
The ICAP-3 aircraft also will have a sophisticated capacity to jam the
communications links of integrated defense systems, depriving them of the
synergy provided by networking. In effect, this new jamming capability
will "dis-integrate" air defenses, isolating their various parts
from command centers. ICAP Three also will have an enhanced capacity to
precisely target antiradiation missiles used to protect the defense
system, preventing the easy reconstitution of damaged assets.
Much of the "how to" is classified, but it is clear that the
advances in capability that will be made possible by ICAP-3 depend in part
on better links to offboard systems--intelligence-gathering aircraft such
as the EP-3 Aries, surface assets, and perhaps even satellites operated by
national agencies. By making the Prowler a key node in network-centric
warfare, the latest upgrades assure it will be able to apply its EW
capabilities with maximum effect.
It is an ironic commentary on how uneven technological progress is that
the most sophisticated EW equipment in the world will soon be operational
aboard an airframe that traces its origins to the 1960s. The ongoing
analysis of alternatives is expected to recommend rapid retirement of the
Prowler after 2010.
The Navy's preference clearly is to replace the Prowler with an EW
variant of the Super Hornet dubbed the F/A-18G "Growler."
Service officials argue that the convenience of building and deploying a
jammer with the same operational features and logistics tail as its main
strike aircraft would reduce cost and permit huge efficiencies. Some
Marine leaders favor using a version of the Joint Strike Fighter, but the
notion of installing emitters on a stealthy airframe is
controversial--especially a single-seat airframe that presumably would
need to offload much of its EW workload.
Most experts regard talk of relying on unmanned aircraft or orbital
platforms for jamming functions as premature. The ongoing analysis of
alternatives probably will recommend one or more manned aircraft as the
preferred solution for the follow-on support jammer. Having learned a hard
lesson about the limitations of stealth in the skies over former
Yugoslavia, the Air Force is expected to insist on recovering an organic
jamming capability--presumably a modified F-15 or F-22. But the
preponderance of support-jamming assets are likely to remain the property
of the Navy.
The real question for the future is whether the neglected EW mission
area will finally receive the sustained attention it deserves. The
experience of recent years proves that electronic warfare in general, and
support jamming in particular, will remain crucial to success in future
air campaigns. A plan is in place to modernize the nation's airborne EW
capabilities. Service leaders are unanimous in hoping that politics and/or
shortsighted economic stringencies not subvert what operational experience
clearly demands. *