• Nigel Pittaway
    Nigel Pittaway
  • A freshly painted No. 6 Squadron E/A-18G Growler marks the Squadron's 100th anniversary.
    A freshly painted No. 6 Squadron E/A-18G Growler marks the Squadron's 100th anniversary.

The Electronic Warfare (EW) landscape is a sensitive subject and seldom discussed in open forums, yet it’s clear that the RAAF is set to move from self-protection to a force-level EW capability that will enable it to target discriminately in the electro-magnetic (EM) spectrum.

Presentations at a Williams Foundation seminar on the future of EW provided broadbrush glimpses of evolving technologies and concepts of operation, with a focus on the entry to service of the E-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft as a catalyst for change.

Less attention was paid to the F-35A in the EW role, but Air Commodore Robert Chipman, the RAAF’s Director General Capability Planning, subsequently emphasised to ADM the complementary nature of the two aircraft in exploiting EW advances.

At the same time he stressed the impact of networking with effective signature management all current and future RAAF EW assets – Growler, F-35A, missionised Gulfstream G550s, P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft, and MQ-4C high altitude Triton unmanned aircraft systems.

“The fact that we’re networking them means they’ll be able to share information and they’ll achieve a far higher degree of accuracy with far higher speed, coordinated across the battlespace,” he commented.

“That’s not a specific project in its own right. But through the Joint Force Authority and the Head of Force Integration we’re making sure that we’re selecting the right capabilities via projects that are able to be networked and integrated.

“One of the ways we can achieve that is by buying families of systems that have already been fielded in the US Navy or the US Air Force and can be integrated into those environments.”

While the final Joint Force capability would greatly enhance the scope and accuracy of EM spectrum coverage, the inclusion of Growler and the F-35A in the mix meant the RAAF would be able to act far more creatively in denying use of the spectrum to an adversary.

“We’re talking about non-kinetic effects because we no longer need to be able to deliver effects kinetically to be able to achieve a particular objective,” AIRCDRE Chipman noted. “Rethinking payloads to maximise the new capabilities had taken place much earlier – that’s what led us to purchase those capabilities.”

Growler and JSF
While the RAAF’s 12 Growlers are capable of disrupting, deceiving or denying a broad range of radar and communications systems, primarily in a standoff role, the F-35A’s AN/APG-81 active electronically-scanned radar encompasses sophisticated electronic attack capabilities in the forward sector including false targets, network attack, advanced jamming, and algorithm-packed data streams.

These will allow F-35As on ground attack missions to operate closer to a layered ground-based air defence system than legacy fighters but, according to an EW expert speaking on condition of anonymity, the Growler could and should still be utilised to provide significant additional protection.

“Ultimately, the F-35A can influence only the electronic battle within the frequency of its own AN/APG-81. It’s unlikely to address a threat not in its database or outside its own radar band, whereas an EA-18G could discern the threat’s capabilities and suppress it if needed,” the EW expert commented to ADM.

A freshly painted No. 6 Squadron E/A-18G Growler marks the Squadron's 100th anniversary.
A freshly painted No. 6 Squadron E/A-18G Growler marks the Squadron's 100th anniversary.

“Could the F-35A get away with it? Yes. But they don’t fly singles, it would be either a two-ship or a four-ship mission, and Growler should be deployed in a standoff role to provide them with an electronic bubble. Nothing is guaranteed in the battlespace; you do everything you can to provide an extra layer of protection in real terms.”

Similarly, the Growler’s full suite of EW capabilities will be utilised to protect the vital E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform while it is monitoring and managing the battlespace.

“If you’re the defending force the first thing you want to target is an aircraft like Wedgetail. It has to be kept close enough to the fight to do its job, and far enough away to be out of harm’s way, although that’s a euphemism,” the expert stated. “If you can shoot it down or remove it from the battlespace you’ve removed your adversary’s control and competence.”

Naturally, this works both ways. AIRCDRE Chipman agreed that the emergence of Very High Frequency (VHF) radar could compromise some of the stealth characteristics of the F-35A.

“But because that’s such a narrow target set, it means you’d have effectively isolated areas of an enemy’s capability that you can then specifically target through other means," AIRCDRE Chipman explained. “It’s the combination of offensive and defensive measures that we seek to employ in the EM spectrum that will enable us to achieve a particular effect. There’s no silver bullet. Stealth on its own won’t be sufficient in future, but stealth in combination with electronic attack across the entire spectrum will achieve a better combat effect overall.”

EW workforce
Growing the workforce necessary to introduce the new, modernised all-source intelligence systems and enhanced information processing capabilities referred to in the 2016 Defence White Paper is a work in progress.

“We have reasonably mature plans for the workforce that we envisage that we need, including growth in the back ends of the organisation that support our system integration,” AIRCDRE Chipman said to ADM. “I’m thinking in particular about the intelligence workforce that is required to collect and interpret data and ensure it’s disseminated effectively across the organisation.

“At the moment it’s based on what we believe we need; that will change in time. Clearly we will strike some practical limitations and ultimately the performance of the organisation will be scaled and the constraint on what we can achieve will be our workforce in terms of its capacity.”

The OODA (observe, orient, decide and act) loop was relevant in the EW environment in explaining how as a decision maker it was possible to achieve clarity and purpose while creating confusion and disorder among the enemy, AIRCDRE Chipman noted.

“We have bought or committed to acquire a lot of assets that are able to observe the EW spectrum and understand what is happening in there. The next task then is being able to accurately locate and identify a new emitter by comparing it to what we knew previously in the battlespace.

“While every bit of information in the battlespace is information that needs to be processed, the bits that are important to us are the changes. Artificial intelligence technologies will inevitably play a big role in the future, and we work very closely with our Five-Eyes partners to ensure we’ve got a really good understanding of our operating environment.”

Such interoperability with Australia’s primary security partners required a compatible and flexible frame of reference.

“We must be capable of resolving ambiguous signals in the environment and we must be capable of interpreting new observations that have not been previously associated with a specific threat system.

“Mastering this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment will require a new way of thinking for those of us accustomed to air superiority and a dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum. We must now come to terms with competing for both.”

EW support
EW support involved two time dimensions – the first operating at the tactical and operational level to cue electronic attack resources and rapidly disseminate new information to the joint force; the second operating at the strategic level to ensure intelligence mission data is constantly updated.

According to the Air Commodore, EW provides the Australian defence organisation with what he described as “a very accurate characterisation” of an enemy electronic order of battle, normally for major systems.

But that could be drilled down to fairly discrete communications systems directly backing an enemy ground force, thus supporting the coalition ground commander as much as the air combat force operating in an enemy airspace.

That information can then be further extended to land commanders being directly supported by F-35As and Growlers with both non-kinetic and kinetic tactical effects.

A further complexity in growing the EW domain was the highly classified nature of the systems.

“We’ll soon need to take the majority of our operations up to a top-secret level or to another classification,” AIRCDRE Chipman explained to ADM. “That means that all of the policy settings and the organisational infrastructure, the facilities, the procedures, used to understand who has access to information and who doesn’t must be reviewed.

“If we don’t put that infrastructure in place, we simply won’t operate effectively with that information or with that technology."

This article first appeared in the February edition of ADM.

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