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A B-52 Standoff?
The cancellation of the Air Force’s B-52 standoff jammer leaves the Navy shouldering that electronic warfare mission. The Air Force says it is studying the alternatives, but opinions differ whether it will get back into the game.
By Peter A. Buxbaum
When the Air Force cancelled the B-52 standoff jammer program in late 2005, it threw the future of the U.S. military’s Airborne Electronic Attack capabilities into disarray. The Air Force was supposed to assume leadership of the U.S. military’s electronic attack expeditionary mission from the Navy in 2012. But the Air Force has been out of the electronic warfare business since it retired the EF-111A in 1996, prompting the question whether the B-52 SOJ cancellation meant the Air Force intends to ditch that mission altogether.
The Air Force insists that it, as well as the office of the secretary of defense, are studying alternatives to the B-52 SOJ, but opinions differ whether this signals a real intention to resume a role in electronic warfare. The Navy’s standoff jamming capabilities are lead by the EA-6B Prowlers, which the Navy is now fielding with an upgraded ICAP III jamming suite. The ICAP III will also be initially provided on future electronic attack assets such as the EA-18 Growler, which the Navy plans to introduce in 2009.
But the Navy’s electronic warfare capabilities are not designed to meet future national electronic warfare needs. Rather, the Navy, in its procurement planning, and the Congress, in its funding mechanisms, both currently assume that the Air Force will be shouldering its Airborne Electronic Attack role. It is feared that the cancellation of the B-52 SOJ, motivated largely by budgetary constraints, will leave the military with a dearth of electronic attack assets with which to counter the integrated air defense systems (IADS) of future adversaries. The vacuum left by the cancellation of the Air Force’s B-52 SOJ must be filled, therefore, either with an alternate Air Force program, or enhanced future Navy capabilities.
The B-52 standoff jammer was part of the Air Force’s Family of Systems and was designed to meet the challenge of evolving IADS of future adversaries such as Iran and China. IADS capabilities have become more mobile and more difficult to overwhelm with current jamming capabilities. Stand-off jamming is designed to disrupt IADS from outside their range, thereby reducing the risk to warfighters’ lives. The B-52 SOJ was to deny the enemy long-range radar capability, which, together with the EC-130 Compass Call that would target enemy communications, and stand-in components, such as the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), the Miniature Air-launched Decoy (MALD) and MALD-J, were to provide the Air Force with the capabilities to disrupt IADS connectivity and integration, allowing penetrating aircraft air superiority.
“A service that enters the battlespace without jamming capability is one that will be dramatically constricted as to what it can do,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a member of the Appropriation Committee and co-chair of the House Electronic Warfare Working Group.
But the Air Force’s budget priorities are directed towards aircraft development, according to Kernan Chaisson, a Washington-based analyst at Forecast International. “Major aircraft development programs are sucking money out of the budget,“ he said. “The Air Force decided it didn’t have enough money to do everything, including the B-52 SOJ. Given the choice between developing the F-22 Raptor and a jamming pod for the B-52, guess which won.”
The Air Force’s attitude to electronic warfare has long been characterized by ambivalence, according to Chaisson, an attitude that dates back to the 1980s and 1990s, when the service began placing greater emphasis on stealth technology to penetrate and defeat enemy air defenses. “The Air Force became so enamored with stealth technology that it began to look away from electronic warfare,” he said. “Many in the Air Force felt that stealth would make electronic warfare unnecessary, so they put a lot of investment in stealth technologies like the EF-117, the B-2 bomber, and others.”
By the time it became clear that stealth did not eliminate the need for electronic warfare, the Air Force had retired the EF-111 and was “behind the electronic warfare power curve,” according to Chaisson. “When that happened there was no standoff jammer to support joint missions, so the Navy EA-6B Prowler was pressed into service to support that mission,” he added. “It turned out that the Navy was tasked with the mission to support all composite forces, and not just the Navy attack mission.”
As a result, “we’ve had the Air Force totally dependent on the Navy for electronic warfare,” said Kirk. “From Congress’ viewpoint, we have funded the Navy requirement to upgrade the Prowler with the ICAP III and the creation of the EA-18 Growler. But all of those procurement plans were to support Navy-only requirements. If the Air Force and the Army don’t have tactical jammers, we are going to need a lot more than what the Navy plans to use.”
What will be required in the short term, according to Kirk, absent an Air Force alternative, is the funding of more Navy Growlers “to fulfill national and not just Navy requirements,” as well as “fresh thinking by the Air Force on how it is going to support, or if it is going to support, tactical aircraft in very robust environments.”
“The Navy continues to provide the Joint force with an excellent EW capability through its EA-6B and EA-18G fleets, an Air Force official acknowledges. “The Air Force recognizes the need to provide indigenous Electronic Attack capability as part of a system of systems when the EA-6B withdraws from expeditionary support.”
But whether the Air Force intends to come up with an alternative to the B-52 standoff jammer is the subject of some disagreement. “The requirement for a Stand-off Jamming capability is still valid,“ the Air Force official said, “and the Air Force is actively evaluating all options to fulfill this capability.“ But whether such studies will necessarily result in a renewed Air Force standoff jammer program is a matter of disagreement.
“The Air Force has done an electronic warfare study every year for the last forty years,” said Air Force Lieutenant. General (ret.) Lanny Trapp, now a consultant at Burdeshaw Associates Ltd., a defense consulting firm in Bethesda, Md. “But the fact is they just cancelled a big program.
“I just came back from spending a week at the Air Combat Command” at Langley Air Force Base, Va., Trapp continued, “and I don’t hear them talking about it anymore. They are looking at what the Navy is going to produce with the Growler. I don’t hear them talking about spending resources for another platform.”
But Nolan Schmidt, director of Airborne Electronic Attack Initiatives at BAE Systems in Lansdale, Pa., believes the Air Force is likely on a quest to find lower-cost alternatives to the B-52. BAE had teamed with Boeing to compete for the now-cancelled standoff jammer program.
“It doesn’t look like they’re just going to drop this by the wayside,” he said. Rather, according to Nolan, the Air Force is seriously considering a scaled-down B-52 system, as well as F-15e, and UAV-based systems with lesser capabilities.
One idea that is gaining traction, in the nature of an interim solution, according to Schmidt, would involve a modification of the originally contemplated B-52 standoff jammer. The B-52 SOJ, as it was originally configured, gave off a great deal of radio frequency and radiated power, he says. The thought, in developing an alternative interim solution, is that the Air Force could meet its requirement with lesser capabilities.
“A proper analysis could come up with a solution of how much in the way of modern waveforms would do to meet Air Force requirements,” Schmidt said. “This could represent a much lower cost alternative. We believe that the Air Force should be able to do that. But there is some disagreement within the government as to whether that would be a sufficient solution. They would need more modeling, testing, and simulating before they could prove what would be a sufficient solution to the problem.”
The Air Force is also looking at systems that would be based on the F-15e or on an unmanned air vehicle platform, according to Schmidt. The F-15e alternative would adapt the Navy’s jamming capabilities from the EA-18 Growler and fit it to the F-15e platform. The UAV alternatives that are being considered “probably won’t match the requirements capabilities,” he said. “What needs to happen is a good healthy amount of modeling and simulation analyses of what the requirements actually are and what each alternative can do relative to fulfilling those.” An ultimate decision will revolve to a large degree around budgetary requirements and Schmidt believes that some Air Force budget dollars could be freed up for electronic warfare around 2010.
Trapp believes that the Air Force will likely not invest in any new electronic jamming capabilities. “As long as the F-16 is still around,” he said, referring to a platform that the Air Force has been flying with jamming capabilities since 1978, “you won’t see an Air Force standoff jamming capability like the B-52 was supposed to be. I’d be very surprised if the Air Force buys another electronic warfare platform. Within current budget constraints, they decided they can’t afford one.”
All the Air Force will say is that it is “evaluating all options against the classified SOJ requirement document validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, as well as against fiscal realities. We are examining, along with the joint community and OSD, a number of risk mitigation options,” said the Air Force official.
If Trapp is correct, the Navy will have to continue to shoulder the military’s Airborne Electronic Attack mission for the foreseeable future, according to Chaisson. “The Air Force is not in a position to do anything in the near term because of the termination of the B-52 SOJ,” he said. “It’s possible some components of the EA-6B Prowlers and the EA-18 Growler could be tailored to an Air Force aircraft but that will take time. Something would have to be done this year to get the Air Force back into the standoff jamming business. Otherwise, they’ll have to give the whole thing to the Navy.
“Either way it’s a mess,” he added, “because you must make sure the Navy has the capabilities.” At issue is the fact that the EA-6B Prowler fleet is aging while the EA-18 Growler has yet to be deployed.
For Kirk, the current situation encompasses important strategic considerations. “Wewant to make sure we are planning so that a future secretary of defense or a future president are not dramatically constrained because the Air Force has decided to get out of the electronic warfare game,” he said.
“If we take no action and let nature take its course,“ he added, “we will have only one service with tactical jamming capabilities and a secretary of defense may, in the future, have to hijack Navy capabilities to support national requirements. Such a future secretary of defense will quickly find out that we don’t have enough.”
The Air Force says it acknowledges the gravity of the situation. “This is an important matter for the AF and the DoD,” the Air Force official said. “There are significant on-going discussions and decision-making forums examining the options, including the AEA system of systems study being conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which should conclude this fall. We expect to make a decision by the end of the year.”