Enabling technologies for airborne electronic warfare

Feb. 28, 2020
High-performance embedded computing, improvements in SWaP, and distributing capability over many different aircraft is helping the military fight in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Airborne electronic warfare (EW) is heading in different directions as the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps each stake out their own approaches, equipment requirements, tactics, techniques and procedures, and concepts of operation to deal with the rapidly evolving technologies flooding the 21st century world.

The Air Force has abandoned large-scale dedicated manned EW aircraft, the Navy is betting heavily on the Boeing EA-18G Growler, the Marines have eschewed the Growler in favor of equipping aircraft with cyber electronic warfare capabilities, and the Army is building a Multi-Function Electronic Warfare (MFEW) family of systems.

What all four have in common is a broader view of this growing arena, that includes EW, cyber warfare, and signals intelligence (SIGINT). Slowly for some, rapidly for others, it all now falls under the umbrella of electromagnetic spectrum warfare.

“Being able to maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum is a fundamental tenant of all operations and has been for some time,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Javorsek, program manager for the Mosaic Warfare Execution Portfolio at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va. “You can’t imagine any modern nation having a program without some expertise in the electromagnetic spectrum. Communications and EW all fit in the same part of the spectrum and you need to be able to manipulate that space.

“The transition to the digital world gives us a lot of new capabilities, but also a lot more things we need to manage,” Javorsek continues. “Most of the time there is an opportunity for the system user to modulate and control that, to use EW in an offensive and a defensive sense. If the user has maximum flexibility, which digital systems give us, that emphasis will move around a lot. The more we can control, manipulate and exploit the electromagnetic spectrum, the technology is really agnostic in terms of offense or defense.”

Electromagnetic spectrum as a domain

Many now see the electromagnetic spectrum as a major battle domain, to be managed and dominated, with EW a part of

“Twenty years ago, we were looking at the world through stovepipes, and EW was mildly interesting, but radar was the system of choice,” notes Joe Ottaviano, director of advanced product solutions at the Lockheed Martin Corp. Rotary and Mission Systems segment in Syracuse, N.Y. “As we have moved to digital, multifunction and EW systems have taken the forefront in how the warrior looks at the battlespace. So there has been a maturing of EW from an analog to digital multifunction capability.”

Airborne EW also is expanding as technological advances enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to take on a growing role. Previously used primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and hunter/killer missions, UAVs of all sizes are being considered to be EW platforms.

“With unmanned you do have the ability to do things you couldn’t or wouldn’t with a manned aircraft, such as projecting farther. There also are opportunities to use those in concert, which comes down to processing, storage, between platform networking, just a lot of computing infrastructure,” says David Jedynak, chief technology officer at the Curtiss-Wright Corp. Defense Solutions division in Ashburn, Va.

“As we are able to provide more and more capability in a smaller and smaller size, the capability that can go on an unmanned vehicle (UV) can continue to climb — or you can put equivalent capability on a smaller platform,” Jedynak says. “That means you can proliferate more EW, by degrees, to more different platforms, including smaller aircraft that couldn’t carry the old, heavy equipment.”

The main thrust in developing EW UAVs is some level of machine learning and autonomy, he adds.

“There are things that can be done with manned aircraft that are easier than unmanned because the entire loop is within the aircraft and you don’t have to worry about latencies or other issues with bandwidth. With a UAV, you’re sending a lot of stuff off-platform and the pipes you’re using limit how much you can send,” he says.

“Just good data analytics means you may not have to send as much out, then lightweight machine learning can do more, such as recognizing things, and eventually move that out to generate or select techniques to apply to EW. It goes by degrees, from a minimum of making the data more manageable all the way to closing the reaction loop on the UAV, making it much more on its own. At that point, it also applies to manned aircraft.”

Embedded computing for EW

Standardization also is of significant importance in making EW ubiquitous on manned and unmanned aircraft, as is the growing use of data processors like field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).

“Open standards, whether you call it a technology or a policy, have made the growth of airborne EW possible. The continued advancement in performance of A/D and D/A converters helps us significantly in what we’re doing. The higher the performance of things like FPGAs have continued to enable doing more,” Jedynak says.

“Part of that, with FPGA-plus or coupling them with specific processors, is the use of more general-purpose processors, a drive to more heterogeneous computing, where you see an FPGA with onboard processing and a general-purpose processor all setting on the same silicon. Those are good enablers to do more and it can scale up or down.”

At the same time, the increasing emphasis on open-systems standards has been called one of the single biggest changes enabling EW. In the past, EW often was more of an add-on, where now it is an upfront, integral part of the requirement. The tri-service importance of continuing to employ open standards was emphasized at the beginning of 2019 when the secretaries of the Air Force, Navy and Army penned a joint memo — which Jedynak termed “quite rare” — calling for adherence to open standards.

John Thompson, director of EW campaigns at the Northrop Grumman Corp. Mission System’s Airborne C4ISR Systems division in Falls Church, Va., says EW underpins modern military operations.

“We’re watching a drive to be as quiet as possible and when you do emit, do so in a very singular area. It’s all tied to survivability. If I’m surveilling, I want it to be very difficult for the other side to locate me — low probability of intercept, because he who emits first, dies,” he says. “When you think about EW, you have to look at electromagnetic warfare. I need to control all emissions from my radars and other surveillance systems. Emission control is the name of the game.”

Open-systems architectures

Another change in the advancement of open-systems new technologies is the recognition of adjacent markets — commercial development areas seemingly completely removed from the military, especially an area as militarily-specific as EW, but where close attention by defense contractors can reveal similar design patterns. Such a new view enables different markets to move together, from growth to solutions, taking a solution from one market and putting it into another.

“We’re seeing a lot of advances in commercial technology making its way into the DOD marketplace. That is feeding the ability to reduce the volume of our systems — weight and power as well as price — putting added capability into the hands of the warfighter,” says Max Pelifian, senior program manager for airborne EW at the Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems segment in Owego, N.Y.

The resulting resonance from a strong adjacent market is good for the defense industry on several levels, from finding solutions that might not have been obvious to pursue from a strictly military perspective to saving DoD research and development money through answers provided by non-defense applications.

“The defense market needs to find the right technologies and vendors who are not necessarily focused only on very-high-volume markets, but are attempting to spread out into many different markets. From a business standpoint, it’s a pyramid. At the bottom, you have commodity parts and at the top of the pyramid you have incredibly small markets. In the middle, you have those looking for high-end, strong markets, such as defense and medical, where the demand is not anywhere near consumer markets,” says Curtiss-Wright’s Jedynak.

“When talking about increasing the pace of change, what you are trying to get into are open standards,” Jedynak continues. “You need to make sure you are appropriately looking around the market and not starting down a path that says ‘this is used on cell phones, I’ll just use that’. Those people don’t even want to talk to you because your market is not large enough to allow you to interfere with their development and delivery of the next generation of cell phones, for example.”

Open standards and a closer partnership with industry also have dramatically reduced the development time for upgrades. Lockheed Martin’s Ottaviano says what was up to a 24-month cycle as little as five years ago has now been shortened to 30 days.

Each service has laid out its own path for the future of airborne EW — approaches that will make open standards, interoperability and commonality even more important.

U.S. Air Force

The Air Force retired its last dedicated EW aircraft equivalent to the Navy’s EA-18G Growler — the IF-111 Raven — in 1998. It still maintains a small fleet of about a dozen EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, which entered service in 1983 and have been in constant use in Southwest Asia and Syria — longer than any other Air Force asset in Afghanistan. That aircraft is now slowly being replaced by the EC-37B Compass Call Re-Host aircraft, the first two scheduled to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) in 2023.

About 70 percent of the EC-37B’s prime mission equipment will be rehosted from retiring EC-130H aircraft without modification; the remaining 30 percent will be new or modified. The Air Force projects the new Compass Call aircraft will have increased range, speed, endurance and operating altitude for better stand-off range and survivability, better enabling the Air Force to conduct electronic attack in anti-access/area denial.

Although not intended for purely EW missions, the Air Force’s new F-35A Raptor joint strike fighter is touted by its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, as having sufficient organic EW capability that it will not need the support of dedicated EW aircraft.

The F35’s AN/ASQ-239 EW system serves as a signals collector system, provides radar warning, identifies the geolocation of electronic emitters, simultaneously tracks multiple aircraft, provides high-gain (i.e., highly focused radio antenna), high gain counter measures and high gain electronic attack through the radar. Lockheed says these EW capabilities will provide wide-frequency coverage, quick reaction time, high sensitivity and probability of intercept, accurate direction finding, multiple aircraft tracking, self-protection countermeasures and jamming.

Those capabilities also will be available on the Marine Corps short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B and the Navy’s carrier-based F-35C.

“A lot of the things we are doing today at DARPA play a critical role in integrating future EW technologies and aircraft. We want more software-defined systems, which give us more flexibility overall. It allows us to break the vendor lock and bring in third party developers, which is the path we need to go down to preserve our technical advantage in the future,” DARPA’s Javorsek says.

“Concerto [one of his programs] looks at the more advanced arrays and sensors and systems that produce a tremendous number of options,” Javorsek continues. “In the future, as we increase the diversity of the assets we have out there and the number of options within a platform and multifunction capabilities, how do we manage the high level of complexity we are imposing on ourselves so we cause the maximum number of challenges for our adversary without causing the same level of challenges for ourselves?”

Information and cyber warfare

In 2019, the Air Force created a new information warfare organization to pursue its renewed emphasis on airborne EW and cyber warfare.

“Without question, EW is critical to the operations we conduct. The advancement of technology in the world and the software centric world we operate in today isn’t the same as decades ago,” says Brig. Gen. David M. Gaedecke, director of the new electromagnetic spectrum superiority office.

“The electromagnetic spectrum as a whole has become much more contested and congested, not just from bad actors, but from cell phones and wireless routers, and commercial security systems,” he says.

“Considering the traditional definition of EW — electronic protection, attack, and support — and looking at current Air Force aircraft, there isn’t just a single platform or service responsible for EW,” Gaedecke goes on. “As we look to the future and the force structure of the Air Force, it’s clear on some of our more advanced platforms and our legacy fleet of F-15s, F-16s, B-52s and others, we are always looking for ways for them to operate in this contested and congested electromagnetic environment and at new ways to maintain our competitive advantage.”

Adapting UAVs to EW operations “gets to the heart of our future force structure”, he adds.

“Remotely piloted aircraft have become a big part of our operations,” Gaedecke says. “Electromagnetic spectrum operations are more than just EW, which is a subset of it. We’re just operating at different ranges than in the past.

“The new 5G is an example of that, operating across multiple bands and frequencies as we move toward the software-centric battlespace,” Gaedecke continues. “Smartphones are an example, not having a huge programmatic requirement for new capabilities by updating the software. That’s what I see in taking some of the individual technologies available to us and maneuvering those into the electromagnetic spectrum at a time of our choosing.”

The key for the Air Force is adding capability to existing platforms and enabling existing weapons systems to be survivable and highly capable in the operating environment.

“One of my roles is, as we build the strategy, requirements and design of the Air Force moving forward, is ensuring the EW we’re aware of is built into the architecture of new platforms. It’s part of transitioning from inflexible hardware solutions to more agile software-defined systems, where we can adapt as fast as software can change,” Gaedecke says.

The Air Force commitment to airborne EW and dominating the electromagnetic spectrum also is closely linked to its relationship to the new Space Force, Gaedecke adds.

U.S. Navy

Dr. Dino Mensa, senior scientist-technology manager for EW technologies at U.S. Naval Air Systems Command at
Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.(NAVAIR), says the Navy also is committed to electromagnetic spectrum dominance and airborne EW provides “reach and agility and the ability to go out and come back without putting boots on the ground”.

Which is why the Navy, in addition to the dedicated EA-18G Growler EW aircraft, is looking to equip all its combat aircraft with some level of EW capability, which he says already is greater than most people believe.

“The platforms that have not traditionally been thought of as EW platforms need that to protect themselves,” Mensa says. “You also have the traditional players, such as the Growler. It’s a rising tide as all platforms look to how they can achieve spectrum dominance and maintain it,” he says.

“You have to be able to scale to the power of the aircraft and its mission. That drives what the package is going to be, using the technologies available now and the proliferation of what we can do based on commercially derived technology,” Mensa says. “We also talk about rotary wing aircraft that have less space and power and are already crammed with gear. For unmanned, we have to work around things like interference with data and control links as well as the scalability of EW packages.”

As commercial technology has had an ever greater impact on the advances made by potential adversaries, the Navy has recognized the need to abandon decades old military development and procurement cycles.

“In the last three or four years, while the technology has kept advancing, we’ve had a cultural shift to focus on what technology we can speed to the fleet, to be ready to fight tonight. For the past 10-to-20 years, we were looking at what we could do 10 years down the road. Now we are accepting more risk, looking at what we can do today. We really need to respond fast,” Mensa says.

“We still maintain a five-year plan and our program office road maps and science and technology advisors whose job is to think ahead. Develop tonight and deliver tomorrow really focuses on what we can do and I don’t see those [and long-range efforts] as competing priorities. But the need to keep pace with our adversaries has been heightened in the last few years.

“In that, I look at the industry more as a partner than a recipient of requirements,” Mensa continues. “It’s much more productive to have a collaborative exploration of the options and look at requirements as the spirit rather than as a checklist.”

Even so, the basic enablers for developments in airborne EW have not changed since the turn of the century, although advancing technology has brought new enablers, as well.

“Miniaturization continues its march, the ability to put more computing power in a smaller space and deal with heat disposition. One of the more recent attention getters is the power of automation and the potential of artificial intelligence deliver autonomous behavior, which is an exciting new field we’re exploring and trying to understand how it can make a difference,” Mensa says.

“We’re a lot more mature now about bolt-on capabilities and what the ripple effects are to other systems. We have more understanding of how complicated the electromagnetic spectrum is and how hard integration is. So we are looking at integration earlier in the development cycle. A pillar of our product output is interoperability and EW is part of that. In the coming decade, we’re really going to see leaps and bounds in the synergy of systems.”

Northrop Grumman’s Thompson says there is an increasing interest in multifunction capabilities by all the services, with the Navy in particular talking about electromagnetic warfare.

“Where previously all systems were built by different companies, then provided to a prime, that can no longer happen; now we have shared apertures, shared processors. Crew is no longer ‘in the loop’, but ‘on the loop’,” he says. “In the loop meaning the airframe has a specific target and I agree with that. On the loop means the machine has identified a threat or something that needs to be surveilled and the operator is made aware of that and can change it, but is no longer part of the work. With that comes a lot of issues.”

U.S. Marine Corps

While Air Force and Navy airborne EW concerns tend to be long-range, the Marine Corps is more concerned about the immediate battlespace — although they, too, have long-range needs with respect to their F-35B Raptors.

Having retired the last of their EA-6B Prowler radar-jamming planes in March 2019 and deciding not to acquire its Navy replacement in the EA-18G Growler, the Marines are looking to incorporate the EW mission into nearly all of its aircraft, especially the F-35B and UAVs.

“The Marine aviation approach to electromagnetic spectrum operations is a distributed, platform-agnostic strategy. Marine aviation is integrating EW systems and Intrepid Tiger II payloads across aviation platforms to provide commanders with an organic and persistent airborne EW capability,” according to the Corps’ 2018 aviation plan.

“The F-35 brings a powerful combination of [EW], weapons, sensors and reduced signature to the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]. F-35 EW capabilities include emitter geolocation, identification and parametric data sharing via Link 16.”

The Intrepid Tiger II is a radio- and radar-jamming pod compatible with most helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The Corps is developing it for integration on Marine AV-8B jump jets, UH-1Y transport helicopters, KC-130J aerial tankers and MV-22B tiltrotors, providing communications EW support and electronic attack capabilities. They also plan to add IT II to the current RQ-21 and the future Marine Unmanned Expeditionary (MUX) UAVs, which the aviation plan says will “provide a long-range, persistent, penetrating, responsive, airborne (EW) capability.”

BAE Systems, manufacturer of the Raptor’s AN/ASQ-239 EW suite, says the system “provides the pilot with maximum situational awareness, helping to identify, monitor, analyze and respond to potential threats. Advanced avionics and sensors provide a real-time, 360-degree view of the battlespace, helping to maximize detection ranges and provide the pilot with options to evade, engage, counter or jam threats.”

The Corps also has called on Boeing to upgrade nine MV-22 Osprey Block B aircraft to Block C, which includes enhanced EW capabilities for the tiltrotor platform.

U.S. Army

While not normally considered to be part of airborne operations, the U.S. Army is one of the world’s largest rotorcraft and UAV operators.

In 2019, Lockheed Martin was contracted to design, develop and test a cyber/electronic warfare podded system for the “Air Large” component of the Army’s MFEW family of systems. The open architecture Silent CROW system is designed to be easily configured for a variety of airborne and ground platforms, including a wing-mounted pod for MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs. According to Lockheed Martin, Silent CROW would enable U.S. soldiers to disrupt, deny, degrade, deceive and destroy adversaries’ electronic systems through electronic support, electronic attack and cyber techniques.

The Army’s new EW strategy calls for enhancing EW and cyber warfare capabilities at the tactical edge and restoring EW at all echelons in response to capabilities exhibited by Russia. Those capabilities are deemed critical as the Army prepares to face new battlefields in which EW will be ubiquitous.

“UAVs have a different problem set than manned aircraft — they can be smaller, longer endurance, different SWaP restrictions. Transitioning into a world where EW is more software defined than in the past opens the door for smaller systems to bring capabilities that did not exist in the past,” DARPA’s Javorsek says.

“In mosaic warfare, we try to get away from monolithic, high value systems to more distributed systems. UAVs fit into that framework — when needed, they can do EW, ISR or whatever. Today, each of those is a separate federated system and, in the UAV space, you don’t have the real estate to work with all those different systems. You need a collaborative system.”

New technologies and new applications of those have led to major changes in how the military looks at the modern battlespace.

“From a doctrine standpoint, the overall view of the electromagnetic spectrum as a battlespace as opposed to just an element of a different battlespace is a major change of context, how we think about it and use it. It’s not just in support of the airborne battlespace any longer, but is a battlespace in itself,” Curtiss-Wright’s Jedynak says.

“When you start viewing it in that context, some of the technical thinking changes. It’s not just how to put capability ‘X’ on one aircraft and capability ‘Y’ on another. With the COTS, open standards architecture view of the world, it means we’re no longer making an EW widget for a particular aircraft, but one other aircraft can use as well.”

Dominating the electro-magnetic spectrum is integral to 21st Century warfare, with airborne EW playing an especially vital role.

“In the future, you will need to sense your environment, understand what is out there, understand the layout of the battlespace,” says John Wojnar, Director-Cyber/EW Convergence Strategies at Lockheed Martin. “Big picture-wise, you will see more airborne data collection, handing off to ground or shipboard systems that are not as SWaP-constrained. It is really customer dependent.” 

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!