Electronic Warfare, Economy Style

Nov. 1, 1995
When surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) appeared in North Vietnam thirty years ago and began knocking down US aircraft, the Air Force had to improvise a response. It developed the “Wild Weasel”—a fighter dedicated to finding and destroying enemy air defenses. The Weasels cleared a path through which the “strikers” could safely fly to their targets with reduced fear of missile attack.

In time, airborne standoff jammers and other tools were employed to further deny enemies the ability to protect their own airspace. The mission developed its own tools, language, and culture and became a pillar in the planning and execution of an air campaign. The system paid off during the Persian Gulf War, when the Weasels, EF-111A Ravens, and other systems were so effective that Iraqi radar operators soon feared even to turn their equipment on.

Now, thirty years after Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) became an integral part of the Air Force, SEAD is undergoing a major change. This time, however, the necessity is not one of operational survival—it is cost. The shrinking defense budget has driven whole categories of systems out of the force, requiring the Air Force to use other systems to take up the slack or leave the missions unmet.

The Air Force will retire the last of its 1960s-vintage F-4G Wild Weasels in less than a year; the first ones are already on their way to being converted into target drones. The EF-111A Raven standoff jamming airplane is also being yanked out of service. It, too, will be gone by the end of the decade. The System Improvement Program upgrade, intended to give the Raven an up-to-date capability, has also been canceled.

These moves are significant because the Air Force typically avoids retiring an airplane until its replacement is well in hand. There will be no direct replacement for these two aircraft in the near future, if ever.

Alarm on Capitol Hill

The new approach is controversial—and not only in the Air Force. Congress is alarmed by the trends in electronic warfare (EW) investment, particularly in light of the proliferation of highly lethal and relatively inexpensive SAMs around the world.

Still, until the Air Force can find a new way of doing the SEAD mission, it will have to rely on the Navy for standoff jamming. In addition, it will use F-16 fighters equipped with a strap-on antiradar system—the High-Speed Antiradiation Missile Targeting System (HTS) to deal with “pop-up” SAM threats.

Through 1997, the Air Force will retain two dozen EF-111s; half that number will remain in the force through 1999. Over the next few years, the Navy will add about two dozen EA-6B Prowlers to its ready inventory, and they will then perform all standoff jamming for all fixed-wing US aircraft through about 2015.

Why the Prowler and not the Raven

“When [the military services] can only afford to have one standoff jammer, then it has to be carrier-capable,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman. Though it is faster and longer-legged than the EA-6B, the Raven cannot land on an aircraft carrier.

“This is what it really means to be ‘joint,’ ” General Fogleman added. “The Navy relies on us for long-distance tanking, for example, and we will rely on them for escort standoff jamming. I don’t have a problem with that.”

Nevertheless, it was General Fogleman who halted an earlier plan to retire the EF-111 in Fiscal 1995 and “bought back” the capability for two years—through 1997—by sacrificing funds from the high-priority F-22 fighter program. Subsequently, the Raven’s retirement was pushed back again, to 1999, because of uncertainties regarding EW capabilities.

For the pop-up SAM threat, the Air Force is looking to use Block 50 F-16s, some of which can carry the HTS. The system is a fuselage pod that provides some of the capabilities found in the F-4G’s extensive on-board systems for precisely identifying and locating an enemy emitter. The Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 strike fighter carries a system comparable to the HTS.

Air Force leaders describe the F-16-plus-HTS combination as “the eighty percent solution” for the problem of how to replace the capability that will be lost when the F-4G retires. Critics—some F-4G crews among them—view this step as a “forty percent solution,” given the fact that the single-seat F-16 will lack not only precision-location capability but also the second set of eyes and hands found in the two-seat F-4G. The Air Force has no plans to use two-seat F-16s for the mission.

USAF plans to enhance the system’s software and hardware in order to give the HTS greater precision, as well as make it more “user-friendly,” but that effort is only now being defined. Also, a low-cost Joint Emitter Targeting System (JETS) that would provide an HTS-like capability using existing wiring and displays in an internal set has yet to reach the drawing board.

Less Capability

The Navy’s EA-6B, which will have to shoulder the load of escort standoff jamming for all the services, also offers less capability than originally planned because of budget hits. The Navy had planned a $7.8 billion advanced capability program (ADVCAP) to radically improve the airplane through electronic upgrades and structural enhancements, but the program has been scrapped.

A few pieces of the ADVCAP will survive in a lesser program, known as ICAP (improved capability) III. Still being defined, the improvement will focus on software upgrades and some hardware improvements in the receiver package, reported a Navy program official. A “limited number” of EA-6Bs, the oldest of which date to the 1970s, must be fitted with new wings.

Congress has doubts about the Defense Department’s overall EW plan. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its 1996 defense spending authorization report, complained that, “because of previous and planned cancellations, the combatant commanders have less EW capability available now than they had during [Operation] Desert Storm.”

The panel charged that the Pentagon had “no coherent plan . . . for a joint future capability to conduct integrated strike warfare” and was engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that the situation “will solve itself.” It moved to add $205 million to various accounts to correct what it saw as a situation rapidly becoming “unacceptable.”

The Senate panel’s highly critical report was made public shortly after an Air Force F-16, carrying an ALQ-131 jammer pod, was speared and broken in two by a SAM fired by Bosnian Serb forces, capturing headlines and intensifying concerns about the adequacy of available electronic combat assets. The Pentagon quickly ordered that all missions over the Balkans would include escort jammer aircraft, a move that further aggravated problems caused by the shortage of such airplanes.

The concerns of Congress “I think . . . are founded,” according to Brig. Gen. (Maj. Gen. selectee) David J. McCloud, the Air Force’s director of Operational Requirements.

“Until we can convince all concerned that we can do the job in a different way,” he continued, “there is a risk” in the near-term SEAD strategy the Air Force—and the Pentagon—has adopted.

However, General McCloud contended the level of risk is “acceptable” to the Air Force. “Nobody is perfectly comfortable with it,” he said. “But [the risk factor] has been identified” and is understood as the by-product of moving to the “next” way of doing things.

General McCloud said that Congress and the electronic combat community are worried because they are accustomed to seeing SEAD done in a certain way. “We have a tendency . . . [to] think of SEAD as EF-111s, EA-6Bs, F-4Gs, and HARMs,” he observed. “That has had a lot of focus lately. . . . It’s on the front burner in everyone’s mind.”

However, he added, “that is, in my opinion, a ‘microview’ of what we’re really trying to do.”

Still Waiting

General McCloud explained that changes in technology—particularly information technology—coupled with the advent of stealth and precision standoff munitions, have made it possible, in the near future, to conduct the SEAD mission more effectively and less expensively. But “it’s not here yet,” he acknowledged.

The Pentagon is not taking the EW situation lightly, according to Col. Ronald R. Barrett, the Air Staff’s chief of Policy and Requirements Management.

“A lot of people are working this issue very hard,” he said.

Hanging on his office wall is a photo, taken at a recent international air show, depicting an array of Soviet-developed SAMs and radars. Referring to it, Colonel Barrett observed, “We know Moscow is having a garage sale. That stuff is out there.”

Colonel Barrett said the military is nearing completion of a “Joint Tacair Electronic Warfare Study” using extensive modeling and simulation of various kinds of EW and SEAD assets operating in a wide variety of combat situations. The goal of the exercise is to find the mix of capabilities that best—read “most cost-effectively”—addresses them. The study is an update of one completed in mid-1994 and includes “more campaign analyses, . . . more analytical work,” the Colonel continued.

The study in turn feeds another ongoing EW study by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. The JROC study, a Joint Warfighting Capability Assessment (JWCA), will be completed before next May. It was to have been finished next month, but “more things keep getting added in,” Colonel Barrett said.

The JWCA will provide a basis for EW and SEAD spending decisions into the early years of the next century.

What is emerging from the studies, Colonel Barrett said, is the need to “look outside the box” and examine capabilities and assets that can play a role in SEAD but that until now have not been involved in the mission.

For example, demonstrations have shown that a satellite can guide a HARM to its target—out of sight and beyond obstacles—with minimal intervention from the launch aircraft. Such demonstrations are “representative of the direction we may be going in,” Colonel Barrett said. Such “off-board” sensor utilization is likely to be a hallmark of aircraft emerging from the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program. [See “Fighters for the Twenty-First Century,” July 1994, p. 50.]

When the original Wild Weasels arrived in southeast Asia, their mission was to provoke enemy SAM and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) operators into turning on their radars and then to use new direction-finding avionics and weapons to locate and attack them. This was an extremely dangerous business, which, when first proposed, drew a response from crews that later went onto their unit patches in shorthand: “YGTBSM,” or “You’ve Got To Be [Kidding] Me!”

The Goal

If all goes as planned, the need for such derring-do will become a thing of the past. Soon, according to General McCloud, the emphasis will be on “taking down your enemy’s Integrated Air Defense System in such a manner that you don’t expose your own forces.”

Under the emerging strategy, timely intelligence, standoff and precision munitions, stealth, and interlinked sensors and “shooters” will make it possible to cripple an enemy’s Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) rapidly then pick off the pop-up threats in a matter of minutes from the time they are first detected.

This SEAD strategy of the future is a more refined version of the strategy that worked so well in Desert Storm. The object would be to “peel away” elements of the enemy IADS like layers of an onion. Long-range radars, communications nets, and acquisition radars will go off the air, destroyed by precision, long-range missiles, such as the Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile and the stealthy, medium-range Joint Standoff Weapon.

As American airplanes develop the capabilities to drive deeper into enemy territory, they will be able to use Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other less expensive means to disable the enemy’s air defense net.

“The emphasis will be on the ‘hard kill,’ ” Colonel Barrett said. “We don’t want to just shut them off. We want to take them out, permanently.”

As the enemy’s IADS is dismantled, the only remaining threat will be from mobile SAM launchers that somehow escaped the intelligence-gathering effort, General McCloud said. For those, there will still be HARMs and aircraft well able to shoot them with high accuracy.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get away from . . . the need for that kind of capability,” he said. “There will always be some dormant SAMs that you miss.” But the rest of the strategy should work well enough so “that you have a diminished need” for what he calls the “reactive” response, i.e., the Wild Weasel.

“We are evolving into a strategy that will allow us to do a lot more ‘preemptive’ strike than ‘reactive,’ ” he said.

Tying it Together

The tools to implement the new strategy already exist in the current inventory of sensor platforms, General McCloud noted.

“I don’t believe we have utilized those assets nearly to the extent that they could be,” he asserted. “You’ve got U-2s, [RC-135] Rivet Joint[s], EP-3s, [RC-12] Guardrail, overheads [satellites], [E-8] JSTARS [Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System], and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles],” he said. Tied together, these sensors could provide precise information on the location of an enemy SAM site or AAA battery and pass it on to “the shooters.”

The location of many of these sites “is already in the database,” General McCloud said. “And we’re updating that information all the time.” When it appears that war is indeed coming, “we keep updating that database in near real time,” such that, “at the kickoff,” a coherent plan for rapidly rendering the enemy defenseless against air attack is ready to go.

General McCloud said one serious obstacle to implementing the envisioned SEAD campaign is that unit leaders are not yet familiar with all the sensor assets available, and so do not take advantage of them.

“As a wing commander at three wings,” he said, “I had extremely limited knowledge of what the overhead systems could do—and could not do—for me. If you don’t have access to it, you don’t include it in your thinking.”

He said that information on the various sensors—how they work and the intelligence products they can provide—is now being disseminated throughout the command schools of all the services, so that commanders know what they can request and how to get it. The “cultural barrier” of reserving such intelligence only for top decision-makers is “gradually being broken down,” he said. Putting the sensor curriculum into command schools and changing the intelligence culture “are being worked aggressively now, with some progress being made.”

Satellites, in particular, are playing a bigger role in Green Flag—the EW version of Red Flag [see “Green Flag,” July 1995, p. 42]—and other exercises, which are more “joint” than ever before, General McCloud said.

“A system that is knowledgeable of the capability of all these collectors and knows how to task them and then passes that information on” is the technological and operational goal, he said.

“But what I’ve described doesn’t exist today,” he added.

General McCloud said that the system will be demonstrated “in pieces” through the turn of the century. Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrators are being pursued to add punch and increase interoperability to the evolving system.

“Most of these are classified, but some of them involve precision location of emissions,” General McCloud said. “Just think about that one thing. If I can geo-locate the emitters as soon as they come up [on the air] and, within a few seconds, pass that information to a shooter . . . and respond within minutes, then we can take out that SAM without ever exposing that launch aircraft.”

General McCloud said that the need to be able to fight two major regional conflicts (MRCs) at more or the less the same time—the basis of current US military strategy—would not necessarily overtax the SEAD operation.

“How simultaneous are these two MRCs going to be?” he asked. Because it will take only a few days of carefully orchestrated, relentless but precise attacks to systematically “take down the enemy’s air defense system,” even two conflicts a week apart should be manageable, from a SEAD perspective, he said.

“Weasel Police”

One who agrees with this assessment is Lt. Col. Mark E. Bruggemeyer, the operations officer of USAF’s 561st Wild Weasel Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev. In the Gulf War, he said, the Air Force learned that a few F-4Gs, dubbed “weasel police,” could “cover several strike packages at once,” especially during the latter part of the war when Iraqi SAM activity was low. In the view of Colonel Bruggemeyer, this showed that the job could be done with fewer assets, at a given point.

“So this is not difficult to do, from a ‘shifting resources’ point of view,” General McCloud said. “What’s hard is getting the joint warfighting mindset put together [to] allow you to use these [sensor systems] routinely, and train with them, so that when war comes, you can make it all happen.”

The one aspect of the emerging SEAD strategy that gives General McCloud pause is “the magnitude of doing this integration” of sensor systems, he said. “It is not a trivial task.”

The system will be called ADSI (Air Defense System Integration), and it will require interfaces and data links among all the available sensors—a huge project.

“They’re all talking in different languages,” General McCloud noted. “We’ve identified in the JROC/JWCA process that we need to improve this situation throughout the joint community. It’s going to take some time because there are many ‘legacy’ systems . . . in place.”

The services are working on Link 16, a system that will permit the crosstalk necessary to achieve the desired sensor fusion.

“Clearly that needs to happen” if the services are to develop a means of destroying a pop-up SAM or AAA threat “within minutes, not hours or days,” of its being discovered, General McCloud observed.

Stealth is slated for a crucial role in the future SEAD campaign because it provides a means for the attacking force to get past enemy air defenses without tripping them.

“Stealth offers an extremely robust capability to take on the toughest threats,” General McCloud noted, “but I don’t think there’s ever going to be one system that will hack the whole problem. . . . You’re going to need all the elements . . . to prevail.”

What About Today

The sensor-fusion elements and precision weapons are still on the drawing board, and EC officials and Congress are wondering how existing systems will be able to “hack” the immediate threat. One example: The EA-6B, unlike the swift EF-111, is too slow to escort a fast-moving strike package comprising F-15s and F-16s. How will the Air Force deal with that reality

“We’re not sure yet,” Colonel Barrett said. “We’re studying that very closely right now.”

But General McCloud said, “We’re simply going to have to use a different tactic. The EA-6B is going to have to rendezvous with the strike package. . . . What you’re trying to do is get the right jamming in the right place at the right time.” He said he is not worried about it—“It’s just a change in tactics”—and that “very smart people in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines are working together on the problem. It’s solvable.”

The Air Force will not be relinquishing its dedicated SEAD expertise completely when the F-4G and EF-111 are gone. Four Air Force flyers reported for duty last month at NAS Whidbey Island, Wash., for training in the EA-6B, and more are expected. Since the EA-6 will be a “joint-use” airplane, the Prowler will have some joint crews, as well.

“The Air Force wants to keep at least some of its EWOs [electronic warfare officers] gainfully employed as such,” said Colonel Bruggemeyer. Some of his Weasel backseaters are going to the EA-6B, while others are going to the EF-111 and others to the dual-role F-15E.

Colonel Bruggemeyer said his crews don’t resent the HTS for putting their airplane into the boneyard. “The F-4 is an old plane,” he said. “Its time is done. The HTS . . . is going to be the force protector. We know that.” His unit is scheduled to go out of business in September 1996.

General McCloud said it is too soon to tell if there will ever be another strictly Wild Weasel airplane.

“The question is, do you really need a dedicated asset to do it, or will a multimission asset do it as well?” he said. “I am more and more convinced the latter is true.”

Air Force planners believe that, by the time the EA-6B starts to drop out of the force in large numbers in twenty years, the service may be able to field extremely small and powerful electronic components that can accomplish all the functions of an entire Prowler in a single small pod.

There may also be autonomous UAVs that can jam and even fire HARMs, General McCloud postulated.

The plan in place through the turn of the century “hedges the bet” the Air Force is making that the evolution of the SEAD mission will happen as expected, General McCloud noted.

“We have bought ourselves some time . . . to build up the EA-6B force, develop tactics, train additional aircrew, . . . and convince ourselves that some of these things are possible,” he said. “We are integrating the overheads into our exercises. We’re integrating them into our schools. We’re making the software and hardware changes that preserve a good capability for the interim. We’re developing a new generation of standoff weapons” and stealth aircraft.

“The pieces are coming together,” he said. “And I believe they will come together in the 2000 time frame.”