NATO investment brings electronic warfare back into fashion
NATO and its allies are investing much-needed funds into developing and fielding electronic warfare capabilities after years of neglect. With the electromagnetic spectrum becoming more contested and congested than ever, and adversaries building up formidable capabilities, Grant Turnbull looks at the latest in the EW arms race.
// Investment in EW assets such as the EA-18G Growler is growing. Image: US Navy
Electronic warfare (EW) is one of the dark arts of warfare, an important (if often underappreciated) discipline that relies on invisible beams of energy to deny, disable or destroy enemy electronic systems, as well as provide a layer of protection for friendly forces during dangerous missions.
From using directed energy against a radar to hide an incoming bomber strike to jamming communications to hinder the coordination and movement of enemy ground forces, EW capabilities are vital for many operations across the combat spectrum.
The history of EW dates back over a century and the discipline advanced significantly after World War Two, especially as militaries increasingly relied on systems that emitted radio waves. At a fundamental level, EW spans all domains and is predicated on exploiting and ultimately dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. If one force can deny the other the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, then this will significantly degrade the opposing force’s capabilities in combat.
EW is back on the agenda as NATO allies modernise
NATO and its allies’ reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum for operations, as well as China and Russia’s significant investment in EW technologies has unsurprisingly seen interest in this topic increase over recent years.
The Russian military in particular sees EW as a means to blunt the overwhelming military might of the US and NATO allies, and has used conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria as a testing ground for a myriad of technologies that can degrade military technologies such as radios, sensors and GPS.
“One reason that Russia is so focused on EW is that it is a relatively cheap way of diminishing an adversary’s capabilities”, noted Patrick Smith in a new report focusing on Russia’s EW capabilities by the non-profit American Security Project. “The United States has a very capable military, but through EW, Russia can counter some of the capabilities that make the US military so effective.”
“Several NATO and allied air forces are in the process of modernising their EW capabilities, including replacing platforms or upgrading systems on legacy platforms.”
NATO countries are now attempting to reverse years of post-Cold War decline and underinvestment in EW by ensuring that deployed assets can function correctly in so-called degraded or denied environments, and that it can also deploy capabilities that will allow its own forces to carry out defensive and offensive EW operations effectively, denying or degrading an adversary’s ability to use the electromagnetic spectrum during operations.
Several NATO and allied air forces are in the process of modernising their EW capabilities, including replacing platforms or upgrading systems on legacy platforms.
New EW capabilities for the German Air Force
In recent months, reports have indicated that Germany will replace its legacy Panavia Tornado fleet with a mix of 15 EA-18G Growler electronic attack (EA) aircraft, along with 30 F/A-18 Super Hornets and additional Eurofighter Typhoons. The Growler will allow the German Air Force to replace its specialist Tornado electronic combat and reconnaissance (ECR) variant and carry on EW missions such as suppression of enemy air defences and passively locating battlefield emitters.
Eurofighter teamed up with several industry partners to showcase an ECR concept last year for the German requirement as a Growler alternative, although this now appears unlikely to see the light of day.
The German Air Force’s Growler fleet may possibly integrate domestic EW technology from electronics company Hensoldt. In April, the company unveiled its new Kalætron Attack solution that could meet the German requirement. It is a new addition to the wider Kalætron EW product family that includes a radar warning receiver and a signals intelligence suite.
“Kalætron Attack now adds an active electronic jamming component, which either dazzles or deceives threatening systems using accurately replicated jamming signals,” said Celia Pelaz, head of Hensoldt’s spectrum dominance & airborne solutions division. “In this way, Kalætron Attack expands the operational options of fighter aircraft, which can now also operate in anti-access/area denial zones.”
Swedish and US Navy jamming pods take off
Swedish defence manufacturer Saab announced in November 2019 that its airborne EA jammer pod had flown for the first time. This low-band jamming pod forms part of Saab’s wider Arexis family of EW systems, which can supplement the EW systems already installed on company’s new Gripen E/F platform, as well as on other aircraft.
Meanwhile, the US Navy is set to field a new jamming pod for its Growler fleet, known as the next-gen jammer mid-band (NGJ-MB). The Raytheon-developed pod will offer greater agility and precision for EA and is expected to enter flight testing soon, with a milestone C decision coming later this year.
The US Navy is also funding efforts for low-band and high-band variants of the NGJ pod to address emerging threats such as radars that emit in low and high-frequency bands that are often not detected by legacy mid-band systems.
“The US Navy is equipping its frontline vessels with the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Programme block 2 system, which will boost the protection against modern anti-ship missiles.”
As well as upgrading the EW capabilities of its fast jets, the US Navy is equipping its frontline vessels with the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Programme (SEWIP) block 2 system, which will boost the protection against modern anti-ship missiles. This will link with the ship’s existing decoy suites, as well as work alongside the new advanced off-board EW system, a podded solution fitted to a MH-60 helicopter that can fly away from the ship, detect a threat and even jam the guidance system of an incoming missile before it reaches a vessel.
A SEWIP block 3 is also in development by Northrop Grumman that will add additional EA capabilities, with installation planned on a US Navy vessel in 2021.
US Army modernises to gain an edge over Russia
With Russia’s significant EW capabilities in mind, the US Army also continues to beef up its EW forces and rapidly test prototype technologies that could give it the edge in a future conflict, especially in the European theatre where a confrontation with Russian forces is most likely.
One capability the army is pursuing is the Terrestrial Layer System (TLS), which combines signals intelligence, EW and cyber capabilities in a mobile platform to support manoeuvre forces. The TLS will work alongside the Multi-Function Electronic Warfare Air Large (MFEW-Air Large), an EW pod developed by Lockheed Martin that will integrate onto the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and provide EA and electronic support for troops on the ground. Data from the MFEW Air and TLS will come together into the Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool, developed by Raytheon, that allows operators to visualise the invisible EW battlespace.
NATO's renewed investment in EW technologies is much needed and will go some way towards levelling the playing field against the Russian military, which is currently the most advanced threat in this space. We can expect to see more investment in EW capabilities in the near future, and more emphasis being placed on training and doctrine development, as well as the convergence with cyber and signals intelligence for optimum performance during multi-domain operations.