Electronic Weapons: A Dozen Growlers Mate

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August 30, 2012: Earlier this year Australia decided to convert six of their new F-18Fs fighters to EA-18G ("Growler") electronic warfare aircraft. Now it's been decided to convert twelve of the 24 F-18Fs Australia is receiving to EA-18Gs. Converting an F-18F to an EA-18G will cost $25 million per aircraft. This does not include the cost ($42 million each) of the 34 ALQ-99 jamming pods that contain the electronics that do all the sensing and jamming. These pods would be obtained from the United States in a crises situation. Australia would have a few of these pods for training and would be paying to have twelve of their F-18Fs modified to use the ALQ-99 and train some of their F-18F crews to handle electronic warfare. There is some static about being dependent on the U.S. for the timely loan of the ALQ-99 pods but then there's all the money being saved by not having your own and not using them much.

The F-18F is a 29 ton, two engine, two seat, fighter bomber that carries 8 tons of missiles and smart bombs, plus an internal 20mm multi-barrel autocannon and 578 rounds of ammo. The first Australian EA-18G will be fitted out in the United States while the remainder will be converted in Australia.

The F-18F purchase is part of the Australian strategy to deal with the delays in getting 70 new F-35s. It works like this. Three years ago, after over four years of deliberation, Australia decided to buy U.S. F-35 fighter-bombers. The first 14 were ordered at a cost of over $100 million each (the price includes a lot of training and maintenance infrastructure).

The original plan was to replace the existing force of F-111 bombers and aging F-18As with F-35s. But five years ago it was realized that it would take too long for the F-35s to arrive and an interim aircraft would be needed.

The worn out 1960s era F-111s were finally retired in late 2010, after 37 years of service. The F-35s will not arrive until 2018. Meanwhile, Indonesia is buying Russian Su-30 fighters. In response Australia bought 24 American F-18F fighters for about $100 million each (including spare parts, training, and such). Australia already operates 72 of the older, and smaller, F-18A (which will be retired by the end of the decade). While the two versions of the F-18 have a lot in common (about 25 percent commonality in parts) the F-18F is a new, and larger, design that is actually a new design based on the original F-18. The twelve F-18Fs and twelve EA-18Gs (which can operate as an F-18F for air combat and ground attack) will last into the 2020s.

Two years after entering squadron service the U.S. Navy's EA-18G "Growler" electronic warfare aircraft saw combat for the first time last year over Libya. The EA-18G is equipped with the ALQ-99 radar jamming pod and a APG-79 phased array (AESA) radar, which also has some jamming capability (with the right software) as well as the ability to fry electronics. American aircraft supplied all of the electronic warfare missions, over 75 percent of the air-to-air refueling, and over 70 percent of the aerial surveillance during the Libya operations last year.

In U.S. service the EA-18Gs are replacing the aging EA-6Bs, that long provided electronic protection against enemy radars and missiles for navy and air force aircraft. The air force retired their EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft in 1998, on the assurance that the navy would get the EA-18G into service before the EA-6Bs died of old age. The older 27 ton EA-6B carried a crew of four, while the highly automated 29 ton EA-18G will have only two people on board. The EA-18G carries up to five electronic warfare pods, plus two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, and two anti-radiation (HARM) missiles. It may be the last manned aircraft to handle the EW job. UAVs are becoming more capable and will eventually take over this dangerous task.

In 2007, the navy received its first operational (as opposed to developmental) EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft. The navy will receive 52 EA-18Gs by 2013, and another 30 after that (at the rate of about five a year). The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps are planning on developing an electronic warfare version of the new F-35 or use a UAV if the EA-18Gs are not plentiful or powerful enough to provide all the electronic protection needed in future wars.

 


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