With the RAAF’s EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft nearing initial operational capability (IOC) comes the promise of a high-end electronic warfare capability. But what is needed next is the dedicated jamming pod to make that possible now and well into the future.
This has proven to be challenging technology, with the US not expecting to see IOC of the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) mid-band (NGJ-MB) capability until early next decade, and the follow-on low and high-band capabilities later still.
Australia is definitely interested and willing to share in development costs, which are substantial. For our 5th generation air force Growler is a very important capability, with nothing remotely comparable in service anywhere in the region.
In November 2017, Chief of Air Force AIRMSHL ‘Leo’ Davies announced the signing of an MoU between Australia and the US for the development of the NGJ. Specifically, Australia and the US Navy will jointly develop the AN/ALQ‑249(V)1 NGJ-MB capability.
“This is a very important milestone for both nations, one that took four years of communication and collaboration to successfully achieve,” AIRMSHL Davies said.
The MoU, signed at US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Hawaii provides a framework for communication, coordination and cooperation between the US Navy and the RAAF during the engineering and manufacturing development phase.
This followed an earlier announcement by Defence Minister Marise Payne at the Avalon Airshow in February 2017 that the government would invest A$250 million in this development.
“As this is a rapidly evolving area, we will work in partnership with the US Navy to develop the next generation jamming capability, which will ensure that our aircraft remain at the technological forefront throughout their service life,” she said.
NGJ is a central element of the Project AIR 5439 Phase 6 enhancing Growler Airborne Electronic Attack Capability (AEAC) with upgrades to the Electronic Warfare (EW) capability. The program has a nominal cost of $5-6 billion and a timeframe of 2016-2035, and will ensure upgrades to the Australian Growler fleet mirrors those of the US Navy.
In Australian and US service, NGJ will replace Growler’s current AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods, acquired through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) deal in which Australia acquired the 12 Growlers.
The ALQ-99 is not a single unit which does everything. Depending on mission, a Growler could carry up to five of the 450-kilogram 4.5-metre pods on wing and centreline hardpoints, but a typical Growler loadout is two pods configured for the mid-band of the frequency spectrum, and one for the low-band.
Though various underwing and fuselage centreline pods have a superficial similarity, AN/ALQ-99 stands out for its little nose propeller which drives a ram air turbine to supply its power, rather than drawing power from the aircraft.
But to dub the AN/ALQ-99 as a veteran capability is being kind. The pod was developed in the 1960s and first deployed on US EA-6B Prowler aircraft at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Prowler was also a veteran aircraft, with the last due to be retired in 2019.
AN/ALQ-99 was also fitted in a centreline ‘canoe’ fairing to US Air Force EF-111 Raven jammers in the 1990s and of course is now carried by Growler which entered US Navy service in 2009.
Initially Australia ordered 12 of the 24 Super Hornets to be pre-configured in production for possible later conversion to Growler, but so alluring was this capability that the RAAF decided it needed to not only retain 24 Super Hornets, but that it required new build Growlers off the production line. In May 2013 it was announced we would acquire 12 Growlers.
Growler came with the familiar ALQ-99 pods plus the onboard ALQ-218 Electronic Surveillance and Electronic Attack suite. But what Growler brings to the fight over Prowler is a far superior offensive and defensive capability, a higher performance airframe, plus the benefits of improved maintainability from a newer and younger airframe.
To have remained in service so long, AN/ALQ-99 must do a lot right, but even after being constantly updated, it is showing its years. Its technology is analogue-based in a digital age and reported problems include poor reliability, regular failure of the built-in test facility, reduction in aircraft performance, and interference with the Growler’s AN/APG-79 AESA radar.
From the outset of the Growler acquisition, it was envisaged that Australia would acquire a better jammer as the US Navy replaced its ALQ-99 pods. As the only Growler operator outside the US and at this stage the only other likely customer for NGJ, it not only seemed fair to contribute to development costs, but also gave Australia input to ensure it is capable of dealing with the kind of threats likely to be encountered in this region.
NGJ has been a long time coming and much of its intended capability remains closely held. In the basic jamming role, it can produce sufficient power in appropriate frequencies to swamp hostile radars.
But more than that, it has been reported that NGJ will also have a cyber-attack capability, using the Growler’s and perhaps the F-35’s AESA radar to insert data into remote systems.
That could have the effect of spoofing a hostile air defence system to conceal inbound aircraft or show them as friendly or at a different location.
On F-35, while it’s still early days it has been envisaged that NGJ could integrate directly with that aircraft’s onboard systems and not require a specialised aircraft configured for EW.
In 2009 the US Navy invited proposals for NGJ-MB from four companies – Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and ITT Exelis (since acquired by Harris) – and in 2013 Raytheon was declared the winner.
BAE appealed the decision which prompted a reconsideration, but this was dismissed and Raytheon was reaffirmed winner in January 2014.
That contest was for the NGJ-MB solution, initially termed Increment 1. The mid-band is the region of the electro-magnetic spectrum where most current threats reside. This capability is officially designated AN/ALQ-249(V)1.
In 2016, Raytheon was awarded a $1 billion contract to deliver 15 pods for engineering and manufacturing development and 14 aeromechanical pods for airworthiness certification. In January 2017 Boeing was awarded a contract to integrate NGJ onto Growler, and the (V)1 version completed critical design review (CDR) in April 2017. IOC is currently set for 2021.
The low-band capability of AN/ALQ‑99 was more recently upgraded and this version is still considered tactically relevant. That said, in April this year Lockheed Martin and Cobham were awarded a contract to develop the Increment 2 NGJ low-band (NGJ-LB) system, with IOC scheduled for 2022.
Lockheed Martin said NGJ-LB would provide significantly greater electronic attack capabilities in the lower frequencies against modern threats. Those modern threats could include HF radar systems able to detect and track low observable aircraft such as the F-35 and the B-2.
Increment 3 will be a high-band capability not currently provided by AN/ALQ-99, but is yet to be funded. So Raytheon’s mid-band capability will be first into service in the US and likely Australia.
Raytheon says NGJ provides significantly enhanced electronic attack capability to the warfighter. “In general, the threats – typically radars – are becoming more adaptable and agile; meaning, if you try and jam them one way, they can change their way of operation to avoid being jammed,” a company statement reads.
“NGJ provides additional capability and flexibility through both hardware and software implementations that address these modern threats. NGJ is also expandable to handle threats as they evolve in the future. This flexibility and expandability does not exist in current systems.”
Raytheon said their mid-band NGJ was built with a combination of high-powered, agile beam-jamming techniques and cutting-edge solid-state electronics. “Raytheon’s NGJ-MB effort will provide the most reliable, dependable and affordable system to deny, degrade and disrupt threats while protecting US and coalition forces.
“NGJ will enable aviators to complete their mission with greater effectiveness and enhanced personal safety.”
The well-regarded website defenseindustrydaily.com said the broader aim of NGJ was to develop a more cost-effective airborne electronic attack system with better performance against advanced threats.
That will be achieved through expanded broadband capability for greater threat coverage against a wider variety of radio frequency emitters, faster collect-analyse-jam loops, more flexibility in terms of jamming profiles which could be changed in flight, better precision within jamming assignments, and more interoperability.
This article appears in the May-June issue of ADBR.