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This article was Originally Published on Jul 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 3

Prowling for a Replacement

One Prowler replacement option receiving close attention is Boeing's EA-18 Electronic Attack plane, based on the Super Hornet.

By John Quigley

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The Navy is nearing the end of a two-year effort to identify a replacement for its 30-year-old EA-6B Prowler, the only support jamming aircraft in the Department of Defense (DoD) inventory. The Prowler's high operating costs, limited airframe performance characteristics and increasing wing fatigue problems will likely force the Navy to replace the aircraft much earlier than the 2015 time frame previously planned.

Accelerating the Prowler's retirement would follow a recent trend; the U.S. Navy has announced its intent to speed up the retirements of both the F-14 Tomcat and the S-3 Viking as part of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark's plan to modernize and recapitalize Naval Aviation.

One of the Prowler replacement options receiving close attention is Boeing's EA-18 Electronic Attack variant, based on the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, which is in production today. The aircraft is equipped with Northrop Grumman's next-generation Improved Capability III (ICAP III) electronic attack suite, slated for initial introduction on the Prowler in 2005. If selected, the EA-18 could enter the fleet as early as 2008.

A final decision is expected as early as this summer, following a June 3 Technical Review Board by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Pete Aldridge. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are currently reviewing their preferred options for airborne electronic attack (AEA) in preparation for the June meeting.

Twenty platforms studied

A DoD-sponsored review of the AEA mission area was completed on Dec. 15, 2001. Members of the AEA Analysis of Alternatives study team spent almost two years examining the support jamming mission area in detail and considered more than 20 platforms, both singly and in combination, in its search for a suitable replacement for the Prowler.

Although it declined to endorse a particular solution, the study strongly endorsed the requirement for a manned, tactical aircraft as part of the core component for a "complete and comprehensive AEA capability."  It also failed to find "any individual or mix of transformational technologies, systems or military concepts of operations" that would obviate the need for a balanced approach to the AEA mission. The study's completion has set the stage for detailed service reviews of AEA requirements and future force structure options.

In the years since the Gulf War, the crucial role of airborne electronic attack platforms in U.S warfighting strategy and execution has become more evident. The decision to retire the Air Force EF-111 Raven support jamming aircraft, driven in part by fiscal constraints, placed the entire burden for support jamming on Navy and Marine Corps Prowlers, an aircraft originally designed in the 1960s to support air operations against Soviet-style air defense systems. Frequent systems upgrades have allowed the Prowler to remain abreast of the threat.

By early 1998, when the Prowler inherited the entire expeditionary support mission upon the retirement of the Raven, worldwide deployment demands had led to its designation as a "low-density/high-demand" asset - too few aircraft to support the extensive AEA requirement. Deployments to expeditionary sites such as Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia were in addition to the continuing need to support 10 Navy carrier air wings and three Marine Corps air wings.

The downing of Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady's F-16 in the skies over Bosnia in 1995 and the subsequent loss of an F-117 Nighthawk in Serbia during Operation Allied Force in 1999 highlighted the continuing need for support jamming. Operation Allied Force air operations over Kosovo and Serbia, where the availability of Prowlers became a pacing function in the tempo of air strikes, confirmed the need for a robust and sustainable AEA force structure in the eyes of many decision-makers and led directly to the initiation of the AEA analysis.

Another impact of Kosovo air operations was recognition of the need to identify, target and attack time-critical targets, often air defense systems. Serbian air defense tactics highlighted the changing nature of the enemy air defense suppression mission. Employing intermittent radiation patterns coupled with camouflage and rapid movement, the Serbs were able to frustrate Allied attempts to permanently destroy their air defense systems and to create a sanctuary from strike aircraft operations.

The ongoing requirement for Prowler jamming support throughout the entire air campaign stressed an already heavily tasked force structure. An operational force structure of at least 150 aircraft is considered necessary to meet today's requirement; the current operational inventory of Prowlers numbers only 108, a fact aggravated by ongoing availability problems caused by the aircraft's age and high operational tempos.

During the early stages of the development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Navy asked McDonnell Douglas (since merged with the Boeing Co.) to explore the viability of incorporating AEA mission capability into the two-seat F/A-18F. This variant is referred to today as the EA-18. EA-18 development included an effort that led to the design of a next-generation wideband electronic attack (WBEA) pod, employing solid-state amplifiers and electronically steered jamming arrays.

Upgraded jamming pods added

Although WBEA pod development was deferred by the Navy in 1998 in favor of upgraded ALQ-99 jamming pods, the advanced electronic attack technology embedded in that design remains a viable option for AEA systems modernization.

The EA-18 combines the capabilities of two major aircraft upgrades, both in the latter stages of development.

Representing the latest in spiral development updates, the F/A-18F Block II features the most current strike fighter technology, introducing key capabilities years earlier than on the single-seat F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The ICAP III electronic attack suite, which was imported from the latest EA-6B upgrade, will feature a digital auxiliary radio frequency (RF) receiver that will enable the latest signal identification and location techniques. ICAP III, the seventh major Prowler upgrade since introduction, will feature significantly enhanced electronic attack features.

The ICAP III suite includes the ALQ-218 RF receiver, which utilizes long-baseline interferometry techniques to generate rapid and accurate direction-of-arrival information on threat signals.

The unprecedented accuracy and speed of the ALQ-218 will enable utilization of state-of-the-art "selective-reactive" jamming techniques that adjust for threat signal changes in real time, and thus will dramatically increase jamming effectiveness. ALQ-99 jamming pod upgrades are being performed concurrently with ICAP III development.

Super Hornet Block II features

Several key Super Hornet Block II features will figure prominently in the conduct of electronic attack operations and collectively represent a quantum leap in capabilities:

  • Raytheon's APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar features substantially increased air-to-air range capability coupled with an extremely accurate ground synthetic aperture radar mode that enables precision location and targeting of threats.
  • The two-seat advanced crew station features a decoupled cockpit, allowing independent employment of aircraft sensors and weapons by each aircrew. The aft crew station features four correlated displays that permit easy access to critical electronic attack data.
  • Advanced mission computers and displays will facilitate a modularized incorporation of electronic attack mission software while an 8-by-10-inch moving map provides increased situational awareness;
  • The Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System will allow rapid sensor cueing and accelerated weapons employment.
  • The Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS) terminal will provide data link connectivity, enabling rapid transmission and reception of tactically relevant electronic attack and targeting data.
  • Raytheon's Advanced Tactical Forward-Looking Infrared provides target identification and acquisition capability at extended ranges.
  • The Shared reconnaissance pod (SHARP) provides advanced electro-optic (EO) and infrared (IR) sensors coupled with the high-bandwidth Common Data Link Navy.

EA-18 weapons carriage capability takes advantage of the Super Hornet's 11 weapons stations and provides for employment of the most advanced standoff precision weapons, including the Joint Standoff Weapon, Joint Direct Attack Munition and High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile. Self-protection is provided by carriage of the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).

Attack capabilities

Pairing the advanced features of both Super Hornet Block II and ICAP III will provide the EA-18 with several valuable electronic attack capabilities:

  • AESA radar, MIDS/Link-16 and AMRAAM will allow the EA-18 to self-escort in high air-to-air threat environments and free up assets previously dedicated to the high-value airborne asset protection mission.
  • EA-18's speed and range characteristics will enable it to match typical strike group profiles.
  • Use of ALQ-218 location data to cue the AESA radar will allow rapid location, identification, targeting and destruction of air defense targets from standoff ranges. This capability will constitute part of the solution to the time-critical targets challenge.
  • Coupling the ALQ-218 with SHARP could enable full-spectrum (RF/EO/IR) reconnaissance on a single tactical platform.

Even after embedding of the aforementioned capabilities, the EA-18 design will retain significant potential for growth in physical volume, weight and cooling.

'New technology' pods

Advanced AEA systems, including the "new technology" pods, which are similar to the original WBEA pod concept, and a fully digital receiver suite with substantial increase in detection, geo-location and identification capability, are being considered for the future. Operations in a network-centric environment with other theater manned and unmanned platforms are also envisioned as future upgrades in the EA-18 spiral development plan. The EA-6B pioneered that concept - continually adding capability as technology matured. The EA-18 design promises to develop in much the same manner.

The Boeing-Northrop Grumman EA-18 team is working with  unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) counterparts on systems, communications data links and concepts of operation that will help to enable a long-term AEA systems solution. An EA-18 as the core AEA asset, combined with UCAV as the stand-in AEA asset, provides a transformational approach to electronic attack that is in concert with AEA analysis recommendations.

EA-18 commonality with the F/A-18E/F (90 percent of components are common) should dramatically reduce operations and support costs by exploiting maintenance, logistics, training and personnel efficiencies. These significant complementary cost savings will be accompanied by operational and tactical synergies in the Navy's future air wing.

John Quigley is manager of EA-18 Business Development Government Relations for the Boeing Co. in Arlington, VA.

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