Electronic Weapons: Growler Does Finland

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March 25, 2019: Finland has been approved as the second export customer for the U.S. Navy's EA-18G "Growler" EW (electronic warfare) aircraft. Finland has not placed an order yet and is still considering which aircraft will replace its older F-18As. If Finland selected the F-18E then EA-18Gs will probably be included in that purchase. Finland has made it clear that it needs some world-class aerial EW to deal with the Russian threat.

The first EA-18G export customer was Australia, which ordered twelve and began receiving them in 2015. One was later lost in an accident but the other eleven continue in service. Both Australia and Finland cited the need for a modern EW aircraft to succeed in modern warfare against an opponent with modern warplanes and air defenses. Australia has to deal with China and Finland has Russia to worry about. China is considered more of a threat, which is why the EA-18G is still in production. Since entering service in 2009 the EA-18G has had a lot of encounters with Chinese and Russian warplanes and anti-aircraft defenses as have American ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) aircraft. This effort made it clear that Russia still has formidable air defense systems and has even developed some new EW capabilities. China has moved much faster and is now surpassing Russia when it comes to EW.

The EA-18G is a customized version of the two-seat F-18F. After many modifications to produce the EA-18G the two aircraft still have about 80 percent commonality in components. The 29 ton EA-18G carries up to eight tons of EW pods (usually five) plus four missiles or fuel tanks. The EA-18G can refuel in the air.

In 2011, two years after entering squadron service, the EA-18G aircraft experienced combat for the first time in Libya. The EA-18G is equipped with the ALQ-99 radar jamming pod and an APG-79 phased array (AESA) radar, which also has some jamming capability (with the right software) as well as the ability to fry electronics. American aircraft supplied all of the electronic warfare missions, over 75 percent of the air-to-air refueling, and over 70 percent of the aerial surveillance in Libya. Subsequently, EA-18Gs served regularly in Syria, Iraq and the Persian Gulf (against Iran). North Korea does not pose much of an EW challenge but EA-18Gs operating off the Chinese coast have found a more challenging EW environment.

Since entering service the EA-18Gs have replaced the aging EA-6Bs that had provided electronic protection against enemy radars and missiles for navy and air force aircraft since the late 1990s when the air force retired their EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft. This was done on the assurance that the Navy would get the EA-18G into service before the EA-6Bs died of old age. The older 27 ton EA-6B carries a crew of four, while the highly automated EA-18G will have only two people on board. The EA-18G carries up to five EW, plus (normally) two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and two anti-radiation (HARM) missiles. It may be the last manned aircraft to handle the EW job. UAVs are becoming more capable, and will eventually take over this dangerous task. The last of 170 EA-6Bs were retired in March 2019.

In 2007, the Navy received its first operational (as opposed to developmental) EA-18G. The Navy received 100 EA-18Gs by 2014 and was to receive another 38 after that. But now the Navy has 140 EA-18Gs and the aircraft is still in production for as many as 160, plus export orders. The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps are planning on developing an electronic warfare version of the new F-35, or use a UAV, if the EA-18Gs are not plentiful, or powerful enough to provide all the electronic protection needed in future wars. But the EA-18G did show itself to be a formidable and quite good at what it did. The original EA-18G has undergone several upgrades to deal with new threats or to add new capabilities.

Despite the high expense of all the electronic gear, the F-18G is not the most expensive combat aircraft out there. As of 2014, the F-22 cost $355 million each. The low budget F-18E cost $94 million each, while the EA-18G went for $105 million. The F-35 cost over $130 million (but has since come down). Even unmanned aircraft are pricy, with the Global Hawk costing $182 million each (with high end sensors). Older fighters, like the F-16, cost $60 million, and an F-15E goes for about $100 million. The price of the export EA-18G was about $125 million.

 


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