With a recently-awarded $171.6 million contract for Low-Rate Initial Production of the U.S. Navy’s Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) in hand, Raytheon can go forward supplying new electronic jamming pods for the Navy’s EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. With them, a move to “smart jamming” will begin but the NGJ’s greatest asset may be dependability.
“If you turn it on, it’s going to come on. It’s going to point where it needs to point and it’s going to be on-frequency,” says Ernie Winston, Raytheon’s associate director for Electronic Warfare Systems and former Growler electronic warfare officer.
That kind of basic functionality has been a problem for the AN/ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System that presently equips the EA-18G and previously the EA-6B Prowler in versions stretching back to the 1970s. EA-18Gs carry three AN/ALQ-99 pods in both high and low-band configurations. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), they’ve suffered frequent failures over the last decade.
Some, including failures of the pods’ Built-In Test system, have caused crew to fly missions with undetected faults. The ALQ-99 also reportedly interferes with the Growler’s AESA radar.
“You never knew which ALQ-99 pod wasn’t going to work,” Winston says, recalling his Growler EWO experience. That required launching more aircraft for redundancy in case one or more pod failures disabled a particular Growler. Reliability concerns also confine ALQ-99 equipped EA-18Gs to relatively standard positions when escorting a strike force. The more powerful, digitally agile NGJ pods should alleviate such issues.
“Now you’re going to be able to put the Growlers wherever they need to be and not have to worry about jamming degradation,” Winston adds.
The NGJ-MB, also known as the AN/ALQ-249, has been in development since approximately 2010, part of the three-pronged EW improvement program for the Super Hornet-based Growler.
It replaces the high-band ALQ-99 pods that Growlers carry under each wing with another pair of pods. An additional NGJ Low Band pod that will be carried beneath the fuselage on the Growler’s centerline is also in development by L3Harris Technologies. Eventually, a high-band NGJ component will also be added.
But the mid-band pods are the first which will actually hang on a Growler. The Navy has procured three pod sets (each set includes two pods) and additional spares for an operational test program which should wrap up by 2024, leading to full-rate production. The Navy ultimately plans to buy 135 pod sets.
Raytheon won’t share the frequency range that the MB pods cover but it’s thought to be somewhere in the 2GHz to 6GHz range which encompasses most of the radar, fire control and communications systems that electronic attack aircraft would be looking to jam to permit a strike force to get to its target.
The ALQ-99 system reportedly put out maximum power (referred to as Effective Isotropic Radiated Power, EIRP) somewhere around 6.8 kilowatts in updated versions. With its scanned array antenna, digital steering, processing and other advances ALQ-249 will be significantly more powerful. How much?
According to Raytheon’s Winston, “An order of magnitude is an understatement.”
That may also mean their standoff jamming range is twice that of ALQ-99 or better. The new pods have self-contained power according to reports to allow maximum EIRP which exceeds the Growler’s own power generation capacity.
Because the pod is a self-powered unit, Raytheon says it could be “integrated into almost any aircraft that has the ability to carry external stores”. That may include unmanned aircraft beyond the jammer-carrying Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD-J) drones that Growlers already work with.
NGJ-MB is also “smart”. It can jam more radars simultaneously than ALQ-99, jumping from one frequency to the next in less time than an adversary radar’s look-through cycle. It can also engage two or more targets at the same time without giving away its presence.
The ability to simultaneously track/prosecute more targets than before will enable Growler EWOs to “surgically jam the frequencies they want” Winston says without blanketing entire frequency blocks, potentially interfering with friendly emitters.
Among the frequencies NGJ-MB may be able to jam or spoof are those carrying 5G communications/data. Declining specific comment on 5G, Winston does allow that, “If you can describe a waveform mathematically, NGJ can transmit it.”
It can also facilitate data sharing in a way that its predecessor cannot, using Link-16 and other data/communications links to share threats with other electronic attack aircraft and with strike platforms and fighters.
“You’re able to send jam requests to other Growlers and share what those assignments are going to be,” Winston affirms.
Upgrading NGJ-MB pod software/functionality in-flight is not out of the question. The possibility of sending live software updates to airborne EA-18s along the lines of Air Force experiments done with the U-2 last October is real. Raytheon confirms that, “Developing non-traditional uses of the pod as a high powered communication device, for example, could support the transmission of these updates if the services decided to pursue these capabilities.”
Enabling such development is the modular, open-architecture design of the ALQ-249 pods which should not only allow for continuous programmatic updating through their lifecycle but allow Raytheon to “be responsive” as the complimentary low band and high band increments being designed by other contractors come on-line.
“That should be pretty straightforward, Annabel Flores, Raytheon vice president for Electronic Warfare Systems maintains. “We can be reactive with software-based solutions and stay relevant as threats and technology develop. We think there’s still room for growth [for NGJ-MB] and that’s part of the system’s design.”
Less straightforward is the effect of adding the new pods to a Growler. A 2018 GAO report confirmed that the EA-18G’s combat range decreases when new NGJ-MB pods are hung on the wing stations in place of the existing ALQ-99 pods. They produce more drag the Navy concluded.
It added that NGJ-MB’s self contained power generation (two pairs of doors, one set on each side of the pod, open to allow air in to drive a ram-air turbine when the jammers are running) may produce even more drag. If the jammers are active for extended periods, this may further reduce the Growler’s combat radius.
Since the pods, as with ALQ-99, talk to each other through and take direction from the Growler’s onboard mission system, questions about the vulnerability of the EA-18’s own software backbone have arisen. As with the F-35, the mission data files it relies on to identify, classify and fix threat emitters can be compromised or fail to communicate with the NGJ.
Raytheon’s Winston says the risk is offset by the Growler EWO’s ability to work around defects in the automated system manually.
“The NGJ was designed to be flexible and work with an operator in the cockpit to generate jamming assignments on the fly. There’s a lot of automation but the EWO still has the ability to generate a waveform when he sees a target.”
A little-known Navy program called REAM (Reactive Electronic Attack Measures) may help as well. REAM software would apply machine learning to begin assessing an unrecognized radar/emitter’s intent and general characteristics.
“The system will be able to identify a jamming technique that can be effective against a generic fire control radar and update its assignment as it reacts to what the radar is doing,” Winston explains. REAM could be fielded by 2024.
By that time a growing group of Growler EWOs will have gained initial familiarity with NGJ-MB. If it proves as consistently mission-ready as Raytheon claims, it will allow EWOs to learn how its power and agility affect adversary radars, how adversary operators react to it, and how they can exploit the capabilities of the pods.
“They’ll begin to think, ‘Wouldn’t it great if NJG could do X, Y or Z,” Winston says.