By Thomas Withington
SEAD is back on the airpower agenda. A2AD strategies coupled with technological advances are redefining the way this vital mission can be performed.
The US Department of Defense defines the Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) mission as that which ‘neutralizes, destroys or temporarily degrades surface-based enemy air defences by destructive and/or disruptive means.’
The so-called ‘Endless Wars’ in the Afghan and Iraqi theatres have seen US and allied air forces operating in a largely benign air environment. Afghanistan had no integrated air defence system (IADS) to speak of while Iraq’s air defences had, for all intents and purposes, been destroyed via the US-led Operation Desert Storm to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, the subsequent enforcement of no fly zones over the north and south of the country, and the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 which removed Saddam Hussein from power.
The war in Syria has been the transitional conflict for US and allied forces as the harbinger of the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) strategies that these forces may face in future confrontations.
Initially the conflict resembled an insurgency: a civil war pitting the regime of President Bashir al Assad against an assortment of opposition groups. But Russia’s overt involvement from 2013 saw the deployment of at least two batteries of Almaz-Antey S-400 (SA-21 Growler) high-altitude, long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.
This was concurrent with the commencement of US-led air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgency group, and against chemical weapons targets belonging to the regime. The latter followed Assad’s chlorine gas attack on the city of Douma in south-west Syria in April 2018.
Thus these retaliatory air strikes performed by British, French and US forces were undertaken in contested airspace, placing SEAD at centre stage as a key component to counter A2AD strategies, while underscoring the fact that the US and her allies can no longer expect to always conduct air operations in benign environments.
Air power theorist Professor Daniel Baltrusaitis established a theoretical framework for the SEAD mission in the seminal 1997 paper Quest for the High Ground: The Development of SEAD Strategy. He posited that SEAD can be performed at three distinct levels: Campaign, Localised, and Opportune.
Campaign SEAD sees the mission performed at the operational level to roll back an adversary’s IADS across much, or all, of a theatre, contributing to the establishment of air superiority and air supremacy.
Localised SEAD missions are performed at a specific time in a specific area in a tactical fashion to suppress elements of an IADS, or non-networked local ground-based air defences to support a specific mission.
Opportune SEAD is concerned with “self-defence and offensive attacks against enemy air defence targets of opportunity”. Ground-based air defences may be struck as and when detected during the course of a mission, solely for the purpose of protecting aircraft.
SEAD can be brought to bear via specific aircraft, weapons and subsystems.
The RAAF’s purchase of 12 Boeing E/A-18G Growler air defence suppression aircraft has led the field vis-à-vis regional enhancements of SEAD capabilities. These aircraft currently use the AN/ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System (TJS), reportedly capable of jamming, from 30,000ft, ground-based air surveillance and fire control/ground-controlled interception (GCI) radars transmitting across 30MHz to 10GHz wavebands at ranges of up to 400 kilometres.
But the AN/ALQ-99 will soon be replaced, initially by Raytheon’s AN/ALQ-249(V)1 Next Generation Jammer-Mid Band (NGJ-MB). This covers a 2GHz to 6GHz waveband and is considered a sea-change in capability by employing an active electronically scanned array (AESA) and a software defined architecture making the system more reliable and capable than its predecessor. The RAAF and the US Navy could receive these pods early this decade.
The ALQ-249(V)1 will be followed by the (V)2 Next Generation Jammer-Low Band (NGJ-LB) encompassing a 100MHz to 2GHz waveband (for which Northrop Grumman and L3Harris have been awarded development contracts), and the (V)3 Next Generation Jammer-High Band (NGJ-HB) covering the 6GHz to 18GHz band of the spectrum. These latter two pods could enter RAAF and US Navy service in the mid-to-late-2020s.
To replace the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering capabilities of the RAAF’s Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, fitted as they are with an early version of BAE Systems’ AN/ALR-2001 Odyssey Electronic Support Measure (ESM). Gathering SIGINT across a 500MHz to 18GHz waveband, the air force will acquire four Gulfstream MC-55A Peregrine electronic warfare support aircraft (see ADBR Nov-Dec 2019 issue).
The kinetic aspects of the RAAF’s SEAD posture will be enhanced via the acquisition of Northrop Grumman’s AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile, an evolution of the Raytheon AGM-88C HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile). The ‘echo’ version adds a Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS) and a Millimetric Wave Radar (MMW).
While the MMW will collect detailed radar imagery of the missile’s end game for later battle damage assessment, the GPS/INS addition is vital for nullifying the ‘switch off’ tactic where radar operators may believe that they are under attack and switch off their radar in hope that the incoming anti-radiation missile will lose its lock on the radar’s RF (Radio Frequency) emissions. The GPS/INS can store the coordinates of the targeted radar should it be deactivated.
The use of GPS coordinates also enables the missile to be loaded with a set of parameters within which it can engage targets but which beyond it cannot fly, thus helping avoid collateral damage. In 1999 during Operation Allied Force, the NATO-led effort to end ethnic cleansing in the Balkans territory of Kosovo, an AGM-88B erroneously hit houses and cars in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
Some air forces may choose not to procure dedicated ARMs, as these weapons are not cheap – the AGM-88E has a reported unit price of up to US$870,000. Jamming pods offer a potential alternative. They are cost-effective as a one-time purchase open to repeated use, unlike ARMs which must be replenished.
New pods and ARMs are in the offing from European suppliers, including the pan-European Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) pod, Saab’s Electronic Attack Jammer Pod (EAJP), and MBDA’s SPEAR-EW loitering electronic attack weapon.
France, Spain and Sweden are jointly developing the AEA via a European Union initiative to develop an escort jammer to protect packages of aircraft in contested airspace. Specifically, the pod must counter contemporary and emerging SAM systems with engagement ranges of up to 400km – a veiled reference to the S-400 which could greatly restrict EU air forces’ use of stand-off weapons during future conflicts, according to the original AEA solicitation.
While not disclosed, the pod may be effective against radars transmitting in frequencies of 2GHz to 40GHz, encompassing the majority of early warning, ground-based air surveillance, and FC/GCI radars that such aircraft may encounter in a future conflict.
The AEA programme may also reflect the reality that, in future, EU nations might have to perform operations outside NATO auspices if the US is unable or unwilling to offer assistance. Hence, they will require robust electronic attack capabilities to accompany the robust kinetic SEAD assets currently maintained by EU members in the form of the Panavia Tornado-ECR air defence suppression aircraft –flown by Italy’s Aeronautica Militaire and Germany’s Luftwaffe – deploying the AGM-88.
Saab’s EAJP is designed to engage low frequency radars across a 150MHz to 4GHz waveband. Early-warning and ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting in VHF/UHF wavebands are an increasing concern – Russia has made notable investments into such systems with NIIDAR’s Podsolnukh-E and NNIIRT’s 55ZH6M Nebo-M VHF radars which entered service from 2000 being two examples.
Such radars may be able detect aircraft with a low radar cross-section. While not capable of producing sufficient track quality for SAM systems, they could indicate to fighters an area where hostile aircraft may be present. Jonas Grönberg, Saab’s head of emerging EW products, says that the EAJP is an escort jammer designed to get strike packages safely through contested airspace for use “against low frequency threats… to help get a strike package within stand-off range to fire their weapons”. The EAJP has been developed privately by Saab and a prototype is undergoing flight testing. Grönberg says the pod could complete development in the next three years.
Meanwhile MBDA has revitalised the air-launched decoy via its SPEAR-EW initiative. SPEAR-EW is an outgrowth of MBDA’s Select Precision Effects at Range-3 (SPEAR-3) air-to-surface weapon currently under development for the RAF.
MBDA says the SPEAR-EW, “will act as a stand-in jammer to greatly increase the survivability of friendly aircraft and suppress enemy air defences”. It is reasonable to assume the SPEAR-EW will transmit jamming waveforms across an 8GHz to 40GHz waveband, allowing it to engage a range of airborne, ground-based and naval FC/GCI and weapons guidance radars.
The concept of operations is for the SPEAR-EW to be launched while an aircraft is in contested airspace to jam hostile radars as and when they transmit. It could be teamed with the SPEAR-3 so that such threats can either be electronically or kinetically engaged. The UK Ministry of Defence has awarded MBDA and Leonardo a technical demonstrator programme contract, and MBDA says “both the electronic warfare payload and missile are already at advanced stages of maturity.”
A contract from the MOD to procure the SPEAR-EW may emerge, and MBDA says that the weapon could equip both the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon F/GR4 and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning jets.
“In the past you had particular aircraft which specialised in SEAD missions. Will this be the case in the future?” asks Prof Baltrusaitis.
To an extent, the RAAF may have answered this question as it is already viewing the mission through a holistic prism where the whole force is employed to defeat A2AD postures. The RAAF says the service looks “across the force to support the SEAD mission”. In addition to the E/A-18G, other platforms such as the F-35A and Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet will aid the fight by “mixing kinetic and non-kinetic effects” including the AN/ALQ-99, Next Generation Jammer and AGM-88s.
This mission, the RAAF says, could be aided by Australia’s other armed services as and when required. “We have assets across the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to contribute to this mission including army and navy fires.”
This imperative to use and coordinate other segments of the RAAF and the ADF writ large is mirrored at the international level. “Due to platform commonality with the US Navy, we often look to them for doctrine and leadership, particularly in the context of the E/A-18G. The integration of the F-35A into the force also gives us shared interest with the US Air Force … Collectively, we train together with the US services in exercises such as Red Flag which is a natural way to test our ideas.”
The need to coordinate the force and work closely with allies is imperative vis-à-vis SEAD and A2AD. Any future confrontation with China or Russia is almost certain to be executed by a coalition, most probably under US or NATO leadership. Using SEAD to defeat A2AD, particularly at the campaign level, will require the close coordination of assets.
It will therefore be imperative to understand how allied air forces perform SEAD and how one’s own SEAD doctrine meshes therein, and with the joint force, to ensure success. The RAAF works hard to ensure this level of coordination with allies and partakes “in exercises with a wide array of nations which helps us form a wider view of ways to achieve this mission”.
At the technical level, debates are emerging concerning the employment of electronic versus kinetic effects to neutralise hostile radars. Saab’s Grönberg believes that in “10 to 15 years’ time it will be much more common that SEAD will be conducted primarily through EW assets directing jamming towards radars and the communications upon which networked IADS depend.”
Grönberg expects the possession of jamming pods to be “much more common than having ARMs,” which could result from the financial considerations discussed above. Nonetheless, he stresses that the choice of attack will be dictated by the desired effect: “Do you just want to suppress enemy radars, or do you want them completely out of the game?”
Cyber warfare could also influence SEAD. In June 2019 following the destruction of a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk UAS by an Iranian Sayyad-2C/3 SAM, US Cyber Command mounted a cyber attack against Iranian air defences.
“Cyber has probably added a new dimension,” observes Prof Baltrusaitis, although he cautions that cyber capabilities must be tightly merged and coordinated with the rest of the SEAD and A2/AD effort. “You need to ensure that the cyber, kinetic and electronic elements are connected, and one force element is not taking out other nodes or effectors that other elements are exploiting. Even if you use jamming and cyber, you are always going to need some type of kinetic weapon, be that a dedicated SEAD weapon or not.”
This reality is recognised by the US electing to use cyber, kinetics and electronic attack to support the SEAD mission. As noted above, the US Navy is acquiring both the AGM-88E and the NGJ while the USAF will acquire Raytheon’s AGM-88F HCSM (HARM Control Section Modification) missile. The latter adds a GPS/INS in a similar fashion to the AGM-88E to be employed by F-16CJ Viper Weasel air defence suppression aircraft.
Following the retirement of its General Dynamics EF-111A Raven electronic attack aircraft in 1998, the USAF is currently bereft of any jammers that can target enemy radar systems beyond those routinely used for platform protection. Nonetheless the force is transitioning the equipment used onboard its Lockheed Martin/L3 EC-130H Compass Call communications jamming aircraft onto the Gulfstream/BAE Systems EC-37B Compass Call II for service entry from 2021.
The US is arguably in a unique position, as it can maintain dedicated SEAD capabilities such as the F-16CJ, EC-37B and E/A-18G due to the size of its defence budget. Other forces may find themselves having to make more vexing decisions on account of their financial realities. Fortunately, the renaissance of the electronic attack pod and avant-garde capabilities, such as the SPEAR-EW, alongside non-specific kinetic ordnance, presents an array of capabilities that their air forces can use to keep their aircraft safe in contested airspace.
These tools will be bolstered by revamped SEAD doctrines designed to counter A2AD postures, and to prosecute the mission at campaign, localised and opportune levels. The imperative to intermesh these SEAD doctrines between allied air forces, honed through regular exercises, will continue. Combining these doctrines and tools will result in potent unilateral and multilateral SEAD capabilities that adversaries must reckon with during future operations.