Military & Aerospace

Airborne Electronic Warfare: Silent Force Multiplier
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Issue Vol. 31.4 Oct-Dec 2016 | Date : 14 Feb , 2017

Evolution of the radio/radar/TV/laser brought in a domain of warfare called the Electronic Warfare (EW). This invisible silent ‘Killer’ was meant to degrade the enemy sensors and weapons. This military action to control the electronic spectrum for own use and to deny free use to the enemy became a game changer. Directed Energy (DE) is an umbrella term covering technologies that relate to the production of a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or sub-atomic particles. Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) involves the use of Electro-Magnetic (EM) energy to jam or deceive enemy systems and direct energy as a weapon against personnel and equipment. Electronic Counter Counter Measures (ECCM) are the passive or active means used to protect own systems from degradation by the enemy. Electronic Support Measures (ESM) involve intercepting, identifying and localising sources of enemy-radiated EM energy for avoiding, targeting and planning other future warfare actions.

Airborne systems, though limited by size and power output, have the advantage of range and reach…

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near”, said ‘Art of War’ scholar and Chinese General Sun Tzu in 500 BC. For centuries, the audio-visual impact of hard-kill kinetic weapons has left an indelible impact on minds of the masses. The pictures of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the video from the weapon-head of laser-guided missiles fired in Iraq are embedded in our minds.

Evolution of the radio/radar/TV/laser brought in a domain of warfare called the Electronic Warfare (EW). This invisible silent ‘Killer’ was meant to degrade the enemy sensors and weapons. This military action to control the electronic spectrum for own use and to deny free use to the enemy became a game changer. Directed Energy (DE) is an umbrella term covering technologies that relate to the production of a beam of concentrated electro-magnetic energy or atomic or sub-atomic particles. Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) involves the use of Electro-Magnetic (EM) energy to jam or deceive enemy systems and direct energy as a weapon against personnel and equipment. Electronic Counter Counter Measures (ECCM) are the passive or active means used to protect own systems from degradation by the enemy. The Electronic Support Measures (ESM) involve intercepting, identifying and localising sources of enemy-radiated EM energy for avoiding, targeting and planning other future warfare actions.

More recently, terms such as Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Defence (ED), and Electronic Support (ES) have been introduced. EW goes beyond just radio or radar frequencies and includes IR, visible, ultraviolet, and other less used portions of the EM spectrum. Real EW action began in World War II when significant EM spectrum usage began. The Bekka Valley operation in 1982 demonstrated that the result of a war could greatly be decided by EW. More recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, EW has played a significant role. EW can be applied from the air, sea, land and space using manned or unmanned systems. New threats and technologies are giving rise to concepts such as spectrum warfare that seek to blend electronic warfare, cyber warfare and other technological approaches to controlling the RF spectrum. Airborne systems, though limited by size and power output, have the advantage of range and reach, and thus have greater impact.

Modern Armies have portable computing and internet capabilities on the move and could be susceptible to jamming…

Typical Airborne EW Unit

Some of the basic EW elements required in all modern aircraft include a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), Chaff and Flare Cartridges to act as decoys against enemy radars and IR missiles and an Airborne Self Protection Jammer (ASPJ). Dedicated EW mission aircraft would have more powerful offensive jammers, ELINT and/or SIGINT systems and Communication Jammers. All electronic systems onboard have to have inbuilt ECCM features to survive an EW attack. EW being a specialised field requiring additional technical knowledge, each unit has specially trained crew for developing tactics and programming systems.

EW Shapes Operation Outcome

Two operations spread over time zones best signify primacy of EW. During the Normandy Landings in WW II, the Germans had a radar station every ten miles on the French coast. On the night preceding D-day, deception jammers carried on eight Sterling aircraft and four B-17s were used by the British to drop chaff and dummy parachutists in the Dover-Calais area. In response, German fighters spent most of the night circling over Calais area. As a result, no fighter attacked the 884 transports and 105 gliders which landed or dropped some 15,000 troops. During the Cold War, radars became more powerful and agile, command and control networks became more resilient. Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) became a common inventory.

Operation Mole Cricket 19 was a Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) launched by the Israeli Air Force against Syrian targets on June 09, 1982, at the beginning of the Lebanon war. They successfully destroyed a Soviet-built SAM network. This decisive Israeli victory is referred to as the “Bekka Valley” operation. Israeli EC-135s were initially used to obtain the location and frequency of the Syrian radars. The Israeli Air Force used ECM pods, chaff rockets, chaff from drones and stand-off jammers onboard Boeing 707 and Arava STOL transport aircraft and Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters. In the 1980s, US President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), also called the Star Wars which envisaged space-based X-Ray Lasers that could destroy ICBMs in flight. It is claimed that the USSR made use of the lasers at the Terra-3 site to target the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984.

The LCA will be fitted with unified radar warning and jamming system…

The Gulf War demonstrated the real importance of EW in modern warfare. Initially, US Army AH-64 Apache helicopters crossed the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border to attack two Iraqi early warning radars. This opened the door for attacks across Iraq by stealthy F-117A flying precision strikes against important C3 nodes, radar and SAM sites. EW aircraft F-4G Wild Weasel of USAF and EA-6B Prowlers, A-7Es and A-6Es of the US Navy jammed radars while F-16C and F/A-18C used HARM anti-radiation missiles for hard-kill. Also employed were ALARM-equipped Tornado GR1s of the RAF, USAF EC-111A ravens as support jammers and EC-130 H for communication jamming. The Iraqi integrated air defence system collapsed within hours.

State-of-the-Art EW Systems

The Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler is capable of carrying up to five AN/ALQ-99 tactical jamming external pods; AN/ALE-43 Bulk Chaff Dispensing pod or four anti-radiation missiles such as AGM-88 HARM. It also carries a communications jamming system. Since 1998, when the USAF EF-111 Raven retired, EA-6B was the lone work horse till EA-18G Growler joined the US Navy in 2009. EA-6Bs were withdrawn in June 2016 after 40 years of service with the US Navy. US Marines will fly them till 2019. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II is also being considered for EW role. Marine Air-Ground Task Force Electronic Warfare (MAGTF-EW) concept envisages medium to high-altitude long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to take on some of the EW missions.

The Boeing RC-135V/W equipped with Raytheon SIGINT/ELINT system is the most significant platform in USAF. The most potent support jamming aircraft are the EA-6B, EF-111A and EC-130 Compass Call. Modern tactical aircraft carry internal self-protection jammers and internal warning receivers. The Westinghouse ALQ-131(V) is the USAF’s standard jamming pod with an array of jammer modules and can be slaved to the aircraft’s RWR. Newer Raytheon ALQ-184(V) employs Rotman lens antennas and provides noise and deception jamming modes. Raytheon is also working on the US Navy’s Next-Generation Jammer (NGJ) comprising self-protection, communications, advanced EW and airborne information operations. Northrop Grumman’s new RWR and EW management system APR-39D (V) 2 merges the capability of previous systems with the digital receiver technology and provides advanced capability. Northrop Grumman is also scheduled to fit US Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout rotary UAV with a new external Multi-Capability EW Pod. BAE Systems is leveraging advances in signals processing in a DARPA-funded programme called ‘Adaptive Radar Countermeasures’ to tackle emerging radar threats and to countering never-before-seen threats.

Raytheon is also working on the US Navy’s Next-Generation Jammer (NGJ)…

The Next Generation Jammer is being developed to replace the current AN/ALQ-99 on the Boeing E/A-18 Growler by around 2020. It will use a small AESA antenna and retain the capability of highly directional jamming. DARPA’s Precision Electronic Warfare (PREW) project aims to develop a low-cost system capable of synchronising several airborne jamming pods with precision to avoid collateral jamming of non-targeted receivers. An expendable active decoy that uses DFRM technology to jam RF based threats has already been developed by SELEX ES. Named Brite Cloud, it is self-contained in a small canister that is similar to a standard flare cartridge. Other dedicated ECM aircraft around the world are Russian Su-24 MP, Yak-28 PP and Mi-8 PP and Chinese GX-11 based on Y-9 transport aircraft. AWACS, Boeing E-3 sentry and Boeing E-4 are the ESM aircraft.

Changing Military Environment

In the recent past, EW took on new dimensions when electronic means began being used to detonate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Modern Armies have portable computing and internet capabilities on the move and could be susceptible to jamming. It is time for armies to integrate Cyber and Signal capabilities into EW. Till now, the Air Forces and Navies had most of the EW capability. Aircraft carriers have complexities of massive number of high powered radars, antennas, and other electronic systems operating simultaneously in a dense shipboard EM environment and have also to cater to sub-surface threats. Air Forces have to cater to very confined aircraft space and need to compensate high speed motion. Tri-Services Cyber/EW Coordination is another important activity to avoid EW fratricide.

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Modern EW Suite

Unlike the previous generation of fighters, the F-35 was designed for very-low-observable characteristics. Besides radar stealth measures, the F-35 incorporates IR signature and visual signature reduction measures. The F-35 must fly most missions without external tanks. Unlike the F-16 and F/A-18, the F-35 lacks leading edge extensions and instead uses stealth-friendly chines for vortex lift. These inlets improve the aircraft’s very-low-observable characteristics. Additionally, the “bump” surface reduces the engine’s exposure to radar, significantly reducing a strong source of radar reflection. The Y-duct type air intake ramps also help in reducing RCS, because the intakes run parallel and not directly into the engine fans. The EW-friendly suite of the F-35 includes, the Northrop Grumman AN/APS-81 AESA radar, Lockheed Martin AAQ-40 electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), AN/AAQ-37 Distributive Aperture (DAS) missile warning system and BAE Systems EW System. DAS consists of six high resolution IR sensors to provide unobstructed spherical coverage around the aircraft. The DAS provides three basic functions in every direction; missile detection and tracking; aircraft detection and tracking; and situational awareness based air-to-air weapons cueing. DAS has demonstrated the ability to detect and track ballistic missiles to ranges exceeding 1,300 kilometres and has also demonstrated the ability to detect and track multiple small suborbital rockets simultaneously in flight.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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