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EA-18G Growlers Achieve Initial Operational Capability

The EA-18G Growler Stands up as America’s Future AEA Provider

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As 2010 begins, the aircrew, maintainers, and support personnel of VAQ-132 have unique bragging rights. Three Boeing EA-18G Growlers wait on their flight line – ready for action. The “Scorpions” became the first U.S. Navy electronic attack squadron to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) with the EA-18G in late September 2009, six years after the Growler program was green-lighted and two years after the unit began its transition from the EA-6B Prowler.

To date, they are the only Growler squadron declared “safe for flight” and with preparations under way for the type’s first-ever deployment, the Scorpions are acutely aware that the U.S Navy and the EA-18G itself collectively represent the only game in town for Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) in the near term.

“We’re definitely feeling the pull of this right now,” VAQ-132 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) Lt. Cmdr. Eric “Skid” Sinibaldi said. “Big

An EA-18G Growler traps aboard carrying three ALQ-99 jamming pods, external tanks, and HARM. The Growler is called the “Grizzly” around the carrier to avoid confusion with the EA-6B Prowler over the radio. Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company

Navy wanted to get this newest weapon out and into the fight. The challenge for us is planning ahead and making sure we’re fully prepared. We need to be ready to go safely and professionally and bring a new capability to the battlespace.”

According to CHINFO (U.S. Navy Office of Information), a total of 88 Growlers are planned for procurement currently at a total program cost of $8.6 billion. Ten active carrier-based EA-18G squadrons, equipped with five aircraft each, plus the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) will be fielded. So far, there are no plans to replace the very active Prowlers of VAQ-209, a Naval Reserve Prowler unit.

The first fleet production aircraft was delivered in June 2008 to VAQ-129, the Growler FRS. At the time of this writing, 14 EA-18Gs were on board at Whidbey Island, Wash.; 22 FY 2009-funded Growlers are to be delivered in 2011; and a further 22 are funded in the FY 2010 budget for delivery in 2012. Early in 2009, Boeing predicted up to 30 additional EA-18G orders, but there’s been no confirmation from the Pentagon.

Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Navy has been the only armed force in the world to field a tactical airborne jammer. Arguably, Navy ownership of the critical and complex AEA mission goes back even further, all the way to 1971, when the venerable and now creaky Grumman EA-6B Prowler entered service. Designed as an advanced, all-weather tactical electronic warfare (EW) platform, the Prowler combined an integrated EW suite, a dedicated four-man aircrew (including three electronic countermeasures officers), and long range with the ability not only to jam but to strike enemy air defenses while operating from aircraft carriers or land bases.

Continuously updated, the EA-6B has been a blue-chip asset for the Department of Defense (DoD), participating in just about every American combat operation that has taken place during its operational life. As other AEA platforms retired, the Prowler kept on jamming, and in 1995, when the U.S. Air Force decided to retire its General Dynamics/Grumman EF-111A Ravens, the Navy and Air Force signed an OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) Program Decision Memorandum to field four “expeditionary” Prowler squadrons that would fly with combined Navy and Air Force crews in support of Air Force missions. USAF planners had sought another AEA platform of their own, proposing a number of options, including a stand-off jammer version of the B-52H, but the program was scuttled in 2006.

Capt. Gordon Smith, right, Air Boss of the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), directs an EA-6B Prowler from the “Yellow Jackets” of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138 onto a bow catapult during the final departure of the squadron’s four aircraft on board. VAQ-138 will soon begin their transition to the E/A-18G Growler. U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Kyle Steckler

Today, EA-6Bs are in greater demand than ever. Flying with ICAP  (“improved capability”) II and III jammers and receivers, Prowlers are an essential component of joint and international operations, tackling everything from traditional jamming and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) missions to jamming remote detonation devices (cellular phones, etc.) used by insurgents to trigger IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite solid performance over the long haul, the EA-6B is an aged platform, the newest example being manufactured in 1991. The reality is Prowlers have been operating under flight envelope restrictions for almost 20 years. Moreover, the maintenance needed to keep old airframes and an evolving suite of electronic components up and flying has taxed the electronic attack community heavily.

So it’s high time for a successor. Given that threat emitters are more numerous than ever and that the follow-on to the EA-6B will be the only tactical jammer around, the stakes are high for the EA-18G. Capt. Mark Darrah, the EA-18G and F/A-18 program manager (PMA-265), has been a part of the Growler program since its inception, helping to stand up PMA-265 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., in 2003. An ex-Prowler NFO, Darrah understands well the importance of the AEA mission and the EA-18G.

An EA-6B Prowler assigned to the Black Ravens of VAQ-135 lands aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Prowler squadrons are low-density, high-demand assets, and have been used heavily over the past decade, taxing the old airframes to their limits. U.S. Navy photo by MC3 John Philip Wagner Jr.

“People need to remember that the Navy has stepped up to this mission set for 30 years, we’ve never walked away from it,” Darrah stressed. “We’ve always maintained our skill set in terms of people and equipment. And training in this area is not a trivial activity. This is a very complex mission.

“The Growler is the first comprehensive update to this mission we’ve been able to complete in three decades,” he said. “It’s a platform that is taking advantage of a very robust 21st century architecture in the Block II Super Hornet. We’re taking a world-class channelized receiver and new technologies and incorporating them into the aircraft to give us what is, without a doubt, the most capable airborne electronic attack capability that we’ve ever seen. It will seamlessly integrate itself into combat operations immediately because it is based on two systems which are already proven.”

If the Growler seems to be something of a hybrid, something of a compromise, it is. But the program is being hailed by the Navy and by Congress as a procurement success, an example of leveraging legacy assets rapidly and cost effectively to fulfill new roles. The decision to go forward with it is rooted in the mid-1990s, at the same time the decision to retire the EF-111 was made, said Darrah. OSD-sponsored “analysis-of-alternatives” (AOA) studies addressed the rapid aging of the Prowler fleet and solicited future alternatives from across the services. Twenty-seven options were proposed in the AOA report that landed on OSD’s desk in December 2001.

According to Darrah, the services collectively recommended that the Navy replace the EA-6B with a Super Hornet variant employing the ICAP III electronic attack system. The USAF would go forward with a stand-off jammer based on the B-52H. An additional component of the AOA called for “stand-in” capability – the ability of an electronic attack system to operate inside of the lethal range of some of the 21st century weapons systems being assessed. The Navy then considered many alternatives to meet the requirements.

A pair of Boeing EA-18G Growlers of  VX-9 “Vampires” bank over the desert. Similar to the way the Prowler was developed from the A-6 Intruder, the Growler is an outgrowth of the F/A-18F Super Hornet. Note the ALQ-218 receiver pods mounted on the Growler’s wingtips in place of the Sidewinders usually carried by Super Hornets. Boeing photo by Ted Carlson.

“Among them we considered an EA-6C, a brand-new platform, and the F model Super Hornet,” Darrah said. “The F was a ready alternative. It’s a two-seat tactical aircraft with advanced crew stations, which can be configured with decoupled cockpits allowing both operators to perform the mission simultaneously. It already had an AESA [APG-79] radar, had fiber optics, and extensive potential for growth. We worked together very closely with several different industry partners and came up with the concept of taking the F and modifying the ALQ-218 system that’s part of ICAP III and repackaging that on the F to give us the EA-18G.”

Essentially, the key components of the ICAP III AEA system, including the AN/ALQ-218 tactical jamming receiver suite (often referred to as the “heart of the system”) and the AN/ALQ-99 tactical jamming system carried by the most up-to-date Prowlers, have been adapted and improved for the EA-18G. Both systems are complemented by the new ICANS (interference cancellation) system and Link-16 (tactical data exchange network), enabling the Growler to communicate during critical phases of the AEA mission and pass information to other assets in the battlespace.

A new digital receiver/exciter, the AN/ALQ-227, transmits “complex” communications jamming waveforms over a “broad” frequency range. The presence of the Super Hornet’s integrated AN/APG-79 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar adds additional situational awareness, jamming and targeting capability, and the ability for the Growler to go offensive in an air-to-air or even possible (but unlikely) strike scenarios beyond its role as an AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) shooter.

Darrah explained that incorporating the ICAP III system in the EA-18G made sense in terms of cost and capability.

U.S. Navy Lt. Brenden Stickles, the pilot of an EA-18G Growler aircraft assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 129, lands during carrier qualifications on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) while the ship is under way in the Pacific Ocean Feb. 17, 2009. One of the concerns voiced about the Growler as a Prowler replacement was the workload for two, rather than four, crewmembers. U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Rosalie Garcia

“The ICAP III is the most capable tactical wide-band receiver in the world. We know that. Adapting it made sense. First, it’s mature and has already proven itself through operational evaluation. We could gain synergy by having a common production line for the system, which meant that we realized reduced costs. We had an architecture we knew worked. If anybody were to ask me what has made this program successful, well, there are lots of reasons, but taking a Block II Super Hornet, which has already been fielded, and the ICAP III receiver system, which had already been through an operational evaluation, and utilizing them together allowed us to stay on schedule, to incorporate new technology at a lower price, keeping us on cost. In fact, we got better technical performance, exceeding many of our requirements, because we put new technology into the receiver system.”

The synergies of ICAP III, ICANS, and the APG-79 give the Growler a leap in situational awareness over the Prowler, Darrah said. The APG-79 gives the EA-18G the advantage of an air-to-air/air-to-ground radar capable of simultaneous detection/identification at long ranges – important not only in locating adversaries but for tracking the friendly airborne assets Growlers are trying to protect.

“It means that you’re able to align yourself better with the protected entity against the threat,” Darrah said. “On many of the frequency ranges that the ALQ-99 operates, you want to have extremely good alignment with the protected entity and the radar you’re going against. The AESA radar allows us to do that, along with Link-16, which we are just now getting on the ICAP III system.”

ICANS gives the Growler another advantage over its predecessor, Darrah noted. “It simply allows us to take a source from the jamming signal under the airplane on the lower antenna and use that to isolate that specific frequency that’s being jammed so we can use our upper antenna to communicate with. The two can be separated and we can use the radio, something we can’t do today in the Prowler. It’s a very important capability, all about the aircraft that you’re required to support and being able to understand dynamically at any time in the mission set where they are relative to the threat. If you can do that, you increase the effectiveness of an already very effective ALQ-99 jammer.”

ICAP III as configured on the Growler also allows for selective-reactive jamming, giving the aircraft the ability to quickly detect threats and react to them with precision. The channelized ALQ-218 receiver identifies threats precisely and allows aircrew to put a very narrow spot of jamming energy on a specific threat instead of throwing out a wide area of energy as earlier preemptive jamming systems did.

The challenge of fitting the Super Hornet with this AEA package was mitigated by the F/A-18F’s capacity for growth, advances in electronic components, and spiral development, according to Darrah.

“The beauty of it is that because it’s not a point-design it has flexibility and we are able to repackage new technology in it to do the mission. We could opt to remove air-to-air specific or air-to-ground components and replace them with the unique electronic attack components that were in the Prowler.”

An EA-18G Growler, assigned to the “Vikings” of VAQ-129, takes off at Naval Air Facility El Centro during a training exercise. VAQ-129 began transitioning and training pilot instructors to fly the Growler to replace the fleet’s current carrier-based EA-6B Prowler. U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Rialyn Rodrigo

The ALQ-218 receivers found in the vertical tail “football” on the EA-6B are split between pods mounted on the Growler’s wingtips, replacing the AIM-9 air-to-air missiles normally carried there. “We repackaged them and gave them the same weight, center-of-gravity, and aerodynamic characteristics of the Sidewinders,” Darrah said.

The gun bay pallet in the nose of the Super Hornet that normally houses its 20 mm M61A1 cannon was removed to make way for electronic arrays that control the AN/ALQ-218 and assist with the coordination of AN/ALQ-99 jamming attacks. Darrah reported that there were electrical and cooling challenges in fitting the arrays, but they were ultimately overcome. Under-wing hardpoints allow for carriage of the ALQ-99 High and Low Band Jamming Pods and a mix of AIM-120 AMRAAM (air-to-air), HARM missiles and 480-gallon fuel tanks. In a pinch, EA-18Gs could also carry the AGM-154 JSOW (joint stand-off weapon) or reconnaissance sensors.

Questions about the workload for the Growler pilot and EWO versus that of the four-man Prowler crew have been frequently raised during Growler development. Darrah contends that the workload is the same – it’s just managed in a different way.

“In the Prowler, the pilot wasn’t integrally engaged in the mission. The ECMO [Electronic Countermeasures Officer] sitting next to him up front focused mainly on radar communications, navigation, and co-pilot duties. The two crewmen in the back managed the EA mission. We took a lot of Prowler crews, over 200 over a span of several years as we did our development, and put them into the Growler trainer at Boeing. We went through numerous scenarios with a variety of different display types and did workload assessments during various phases of various missions to determine what displays worked best. We discovered that getting the pilot engaged, flying an aircraft with the situational awareness that the Growler has, was very positive.”

Darrah argues that the Growler’s advanced sensors and multifunction displays, thorough crew resource management training, and typical mission durations allow the EA-18G’s duo to effectively handle the AEA mission. “Most strike missions last at best 30 to 40 minutes if things are executed properly. So the workload spikes, then goes to a lower level of effort, and we’re able to manage that with a two-person crew.”

Regarding the mix of responsibilities in the front and rear cockpits, Darrah said Growler crews will come up with what they call a “contract,” deciding which duties will be shared and which will be exclusive to each. Though all sensor information can be seen in both cockpits, pilots will most often handle air-to-air chores via the radar, using situational awareness to position the aircraft and communicate. AEA duties will most often fall to EWOs, but the roles can reverse.

“In general, you’ll see the backseater focusing on the EA mission set-up, engagement, and management,” Darrah affirmed. “But at specific points in the mission, those two roles may flop. It may be that the pilot decides he needs to be focusing on a certain part of the AEA mission and he’ll turn the air-to-air responsibility over to the EWO. The aircraft allows both the front and aft cockpits to manage the AEA mission equally.”

VAQ-132 aircrews agree with Darrah’s assessment, but qualify their observations because so far all of the unit’s aircrew have the same amount of experience in the EA-18G. “Crew coordination is going to be huge,” Sinibaldi said. “There are times where the pilot will be busier with weapons system employment than the EWO, but there will also be times when that’s reversed.”

Scorpion aircrews are on their way to logging 200 flight hours in the Growler so far. The squadron has already completed carrier

A U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft traps aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Aug. 1, 2008, at sea in the Atlantic Ocean during carrier qualifications. Naval aviators say the Growler is significantly easier to bring aboard than the Prowler. DoD photo by Sean Seremet

qualification, and crews report that the EA-18G is significantly easier to bring aboard than the Prowler. “With a full electronic attack load, it’s like flying a fully loaded F-model,” Sinibaldi said.

For now, VAQ-132’s priority is to become proficient in the EA-18G’s primary mission, said fellow Scorpions EWO, Lt. Cmdr. Michael “Pastey” Szczerbinski. Additional capabilities will be explored later.

“If I had to sum up the Growler’s most impressive trait so far it would be ‘connectivity,’” Szczerbinski said. “From the EWO’s perspective, you have more capability than ever to do your job and now you can connect while doing that with the rest of the warfighters out there in a battlespace management sense via a host of options. One of the drawbacks of the Prowler was that you could do EW but you couldn’t fuse sensor information. Now I can do that and offload it real time to other assets in the battlespace. That’s something we can add to the fight beyond the better jet with greater performance. We can be a battlespace manager.”

The Navy won’t say just yet how different Growler operations will be from Prowler tactics, but given the EA-18G’s added capabilities one would expect some changes. One thing is certain, the Navy would very much like to equip the EA-18G with a next-generation jammer, replacing the ALQ-99.

“Obviously, we’d be very happy to take that new pod on board,” said Darrah. “As the decision is made on what it will look like, we will participate in its development I’m sure. I think all of our systems would work well with it. There’s nothing like the ALQ-218 system out there. What a lot of people don’t understand is that there’s a true synergy between the receiver and the jammer. The 218 system is optimized for a jammer. So it would be a great benefit to the AEA mission to get a next-generation jammer.”

The date of the first Growler deployment has not been revealed as yet, but sometime in 2010 the aircraft will make its operational debut. Many think it might be the last manned, dedicated AEA platform. No doubt observers will be watching closely. Soon, and for the near future, the EA-18G will be the only AEA game in town.

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...