August 11, 2014: Strategy Page
Between May and June 2014 the U.S. Navy conducted tests using a Nimitz class carrier off the coast of California to determine if there was any benefit in expanding the EA-18G "Growler" electronic warfare aircraft squadron on each Nimitz class ship from five aircraft to eight. The tests were a success and the navy is trying to use that success to get Congress to provide cash to buy another 33 EA-18Gs to expand the squadrons on all the large carriers. The navy has enough support in Congress to get some additional EA-18Gs but defense budgets are being cut and there are too many worthy (or not) projects seeking cash that is not there anymore. The EA-18G manufacturer would like to keep production going into 2017 but it looks like they’ll be lucky to keep the line going into 2016.
Meanwhile the navy is getting some money for EA-18G upgrades. In 2013 that included new communications technology that allows the EA-18G to share data instantly with other EA-18Gs and other types of aircraft (combat and support, like E-2 and E-3 AWACS). The new capability is JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System). Development (by the U.S. Air Force) of this system began 30 years ago and mature examples of the technology only began showing up in the last decade. JTIDS is a datalink that gives the pilot complete and real-time situation reports, showing what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing. Pilots who tested JTIDS reported drastic increases in their situational awareness (a “sense of where you are”). For example, during combat training exercises pilots with JTIDS had a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor against pilots without JTIDS.
Noting results like this the navy began adopting JTIDS, not only to improve the capabilities of its own aircraft but also to improve data sharing with air force warplanes, which often carry out joint operations with the navy. JTIDs is just one of several new technologies navy aircraft will need to get their “combat Internet” working. The EA-18G was the first navy aircraft to test JTIDS because the EA-18G is designed to work with air force and navy aircraft as the EA-18G now provides electronic warfare support for both services.
EA-18G saw combat for the first time over Libya in 2011 and got to use a lot of its high tech gear in combat for this first time. This included the ALQ-99 radar jamming pod and an APG-79 phased array (AESA) radar, which also has some jamming capability (via the right software) as well as the ability to fry electronics. It was suggested that the EA-18G might have done this to some Libyan armored vehicles.
It was only in 2007 that the navy received its first operational (as opposed to developmental) EA-18G and in 2008 the first EA-18G squadron entered service. In early 2014 the hundredth EA-18G was delivered and there are only 17 to go on the original order. Meanwhile 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.
The EA-18Gs have replaced the aging navy EA-6Bs that long provided electronic protection against enemy radars and missiles for navy and air force aircraft. The air force retired their EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft in 1998, 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 29 ton EA-18G will have only 2 people on board. The EA-18G carries up to 5 electronic warfare pods, plus 2 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and 2 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.