Crawl, walk, Growl

A pair of Royal Australian Air Force EA-18G Growlers en route to the Australian Air Show in Avalon.Director Growler Transition Office explains how striving to successfully introduce the EA-18G airborne electronic attack capability with the RAAF, and the wider ADF, is about more than just the ‘whoosh-bang’ of missiles test-fired from a fancy new jet.

Thinking through how best to go about introducing the Boeing EA-18G Growler has brought to the fore a number of opportunities for industry to support the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as it considers how it will take its emerging airborne electronic attack capability to the next level.

These opportunities include designing an electromagnetic spectrum battle management system, which would perform an electronic deconfliction function equivalent to an air traffic control system, and facilitating collective training in the electromagnetic environment for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) at large.

Discussing the introduction of the Growler with Australian Defence Business Review at the end of January, Group Captain Tim Churchill, Director Growler Transition Office within the RAAF, called on industry to invest in internal research-and-development efforts specifically in these areas.

“It is all good and well to have a fancy jet, but there are all the other fundamental inputs to capability,” GPCAPT Churchill said, highlighting the importance of establishing the necessary support systems for the aircraft, and the potential for industry involvement in achieving this.

“All those bits and pieces [are needed] to actually make it happen, so we have been working hard to make sure all the pieces are in place so we actually have a whole capability.”

A particular area of focus for the RAAF is the development of a command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) system that would, among other things, enable targeting and manage the flow of data, while simultaneously making sure the Growler is enhancing rather than degrading the capabilities of friendly forces.

And as the RAAF’s airborne electronic attack capability matures, the provision of training will have to be expanded to encompass the wider ADF.

“The training audiences are going to have to get wider, so instead of just training an individual Growler crew we are actually going to need collective training systems for the whole of the ADF, and moving forward I see a real need to do more synthetic training, which is quite hard technically to solve when you are talking about a whole bunch of beeps and squeaks,” GPCAPT Churchill said.

“For example, if we are just flying around in our [simulator] we can see what happens to our jet, and if we programmed it correctly what happens to a simulated threat, but we do not necessarily know what happens to the blue [friendly] forces when that happens, if we have got some interference or something like that happening with our own communications or own radars that might be in ships or on the ground or in the air.”

The scope of the AIR 5349 Phase 3 Growler Airborne Electronic Attack project includes electronic warfare (EW) training range capabilities both in the Western Training Area located west of RAAF Base Amberley, where the 12 aircraft will be based, and at the Delamere Air Weapons Range managed by RAAF Base Tindal, which together are known as the Mobile Threat Training Emitter System (MTTES).

There are no plans for the Growler to transmit out of its ALQ-99 jamming pods around Amberley, with crews only cleared to detect, geolocate and identify potential targets there.

But the RAAF will be far less constrained – electronically speaking – at Delamere in the Northern Territory, where the capability that is intended to disrupt, deceive and deny access to electronic systems can be let off the leash.

“We plan to acquire some [secondhand items of equipment] there that are threat emitters and put these pop-up vans there, some radios that can be jammed, and so we will be able to have an array of targets on the ground that Growlers can actually jam,” GPCAPT Churchill said.

Although 6 Squadron is likely to regularly fly its Growlers over the Delamere range to conduct harder training missions, the most complex of missions will occur in the US at least every couple of years, for example at a Red Flag air-to-air combat training exercise.

GPCAPT Churchill explained that the Growler electronic attack capability is envisaged as working in concert with new long-range EW support aircraft, proposed in the 2016 Defence White Paper, which are planned to be based on the Gulfstream G550.

“Growler, whilst it is in the same hull as a Super Hornet is actually designed as a tactical jamming platform; the Gulfstream aircraft, they are designed as collectors,” he said. “The EW aircraft will have their eyes and ears wide open and just be listening to anything that they can tune themselves to.

“With the Growler, it is spending a lot of time jamming, so its receivers are actually designed to point the jammers in the right direction in space and at the right frequency.

“So for a lot of the time the Growler is actually blind, if you like, or deaf, as it is doing its own jamming, so what ends up happening is these systems end up being complementary to each other.”

Part of Australia’s operational test and evaluation (OT&E) program for the Growler is an effort to ensure initially that everything works properly in the US, where the RAAF will be close to the necessary support, should problems be encountered.

“Normally, people tend to think OT&E is about making sure the whoosh-bang of the weapons go, but actually for us it is making sure that all the publications are there, the maintenance guys are well trained, the supply system is there…making sure the data flows through from intel through mission planning into the jet,” GPCAPT Churchill said.

That being said, the OT&E program is due to climax in May at China Lake in California with the live fire of the AIM‑120 AMRAAM, the AGM-88B HARM and the AGM-88E AARGM.

“We have got two types of aircrews at the moment: we have got a whole bunch of experienced people that have been embedded within the US Navy for quite some time, and I would call them experienced, and half the crew are inexperienced, who have just come straight through our training pipeline and the US Navy pipeline, and they have never flown fast jets in the Australian context,” GPCAPT Churchill said.

“We have designed an operational transition course to teach these people how to fly Australian instrument approaches, how to operate around an Australian airfield, how to fly tactical formations at night using Australian procedures and those kind of things, and so that is one of the things that is going to be tested.”

As the Integrated Investment Program stated, the RAAF’s Growlers will be kept common with US aircraft through regular upgrades.

“We are pretty much tied at the hip with the US Navy to be able to support this platform; it is very important for us to maintain commonality so we can keep those costs manageable, as well as have a contemporary capability, so there has been money set aside,” GPCAPT Churchill said.

Indeed, the Growler Electronic Attack Enhancements project, which has a timeframe of 2016 to 2035, is valued at somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion.

“A bunch of upgrades are already approved by government to be done, but there were some big dollar amounts that we could not define well for government that are yet to gain government approval,” he continued.

“Next Generation Jammer is a classic one of those, so that is a big, very expensive program, but we are embarking on that journey.”

GPCAPT Churchill explained that while the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) is responsible for EA-18G acquisition activities, he and the members of the team that he leads as Director Growler Transition Office within the RAAF are comparable to business change managers who are tasked with describing the future operating model for the capability.

“This has been a very interesting program; I love a challenge, and you have got to be careful what you wish for,” he quipped. “But we have done a lot of hard work on risk management principles, so identifying, analysing and then treating risks.

“And so when we started this program, across the whole board, especially CASG, there were a lot of high risks, and through a lot of good work we have pushed them down and/or retired risk.

“The big piece for me that is still on my to-do list is…that C4I space; so it is all good and well having the weapon, but where are you going to use it, when and why?

“That is the bit that Australia is new at, so even if I knew the answer we have got to do collective training to bring up a whole bunch of people through the command-and-control system to make sure we are using these things well.”

This feature was first published in the March-April 2017 issue of Australian Defence Business Review.