Electronic Weapons: November 3, 2001


: The Pentagon is facing a tough decision on how to replace the EA-6B aerial jammer aircraft. The retirement of the EF-111A fleet on orders of President Clinton has left the Navy aircraft carrying the load for the air wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, wearing those aircraft out at a faster rate than anyone anticipated. Many of these old aircraft are being placed under written maneuver limits that make it hard to operate in the most dangerous areas. The Navy has 124 EA-6Bs, but losses due to major mechanical failures or crashes are slowly reducing this, and the Pentagon expects to drop below the critical number of 108 by the summer of 2008. None of the choices for a replacement are easy, but one of them must be picked soon as work must begin on a new jammer plane to have them flying by 2008. Options include:

@ The F-18G Growler has been found to be far too expensive as it would cost $48 billion to develop the systems. Each aircraft would cost $100 million, and it would take ten years to certify the heavily-modified Growler airframe.

@ A similar cost would apply to developing a jammer version of the F-22 or F-15E. The F-15E is in short supply, and the Air Force would have to restart production of an outdated aircraft. The F-22 is too expensive before adding the cost of jamming systems, and its internal weapon bays are not suited to this use. Adding external systems would destroy its stealth benefits.

@ New Prowlers could be built, perhaps with upgraded systems, as the EA-6C. These would have improved engines and flight controls compared to the current Prowlers. Cost of developing the EA-6C could vary from $100 million to $800 million depending on what is actually developed as new systems and what systems simply use the existing technology. Besides the relatively low cost, any work done to design new systems for the EA-6C could be easily retrofitted into the least-worn-out of the EA-6Bs. 

@ Business jets or airliners could be modified to perform some airborne jammer functions but nobody thinks that these could be used over defended airspace. Even so, these might be produced as an interim solution which could buy extra time.

@ Unmanned drones and "jammer missiles" such as MALD (the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy) are considered adjuncts to manned jammer aircraft. The Air Force is particularly impressed with the possibilities of a 6,000-pound payload version of Global Hawk. Using these systems to back up the shrinking EA-6B fleet might buy the US another year or two before it drops below the minimum number of aerial jammers.

@ The Air Force thinks it could get by without a new jammer aircraft by using new fighters such as the F-22 and JSF, which could use their active electronically-scanned array radars to generate a high-power narrow-beam jamming signal. Industry officials, however, warn that these air-to-air radars are not designed to emit that much power and major revisions of the design would be needed.

@ The Joint Strike Fighter is regarded as the most likely solution. It is a new design just entering production, and will be built in relatively huge numbers so the unit cost would be low. Indeed, the low cost of the aircraft would make the total price affordable, even though the electronics would cost as much as those for the F-18G. There is concern with any of the fighter options that the one "guy in back" might be overworked. The EA-6B has a pilot and three electronic warriors. While automation might help, there has been talk of datalink systems that could put one or two additional systems operators in an airliner or ground base a hundred miles away.

@ Ideas to modify B-1B or B-52H bombers into stand-off jammers are no longer being actively considered, possibly because medium altitude operations would expose these aircraft to the deadly S-400 missile Russia will be exporting in a few years.--Stephen V Cole




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