Four years after entering squadron service, the U.S. Navy's EA-18G "Growler" electronic warfare aircraft is being upgraded with a communications technology that allows the EA-18G to share data instantly with other EA-18Gs and other types of aircraft (combat and support, like E-2 and E-3 AWACS). The new capability is JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System). Development (by the U.S. Air Force) of this system began 30 years ago and mature examples of the technology only began showing up in the last decade. JTIDS is a datalink that gives the pilot complete and real-time situation report, showing what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing.
Pilots who tested JTIDS reported drastic increases in their situational awareness (a “sense of where you are”). For example, during combat training exercises pilots with JTIDS had a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor against pilots without JTIDS. Noting results like this the navy is adopting JTIDS, not only to improve the capabilities of its own aircraft but also to improve data sharing with air force warplanes, which often carry out joint operations with the navy. JTIDs is just one of several new technologies navy aircraft will need to get their “combat Internet” working.
While a great idea in theory, the “combat Internet” has proved difficult to implement because of the need to make these digital data transfers robust enough to survive jamming and enemy efforts to eavesdrop. The required tech has gotten light, powerful, and cheap enough for this in the last decade, and now it’s just a matter of installing and testing it for the major types of combat and support aircraft. The air force is ahead of the navy in this respect but the navy is catching up, despite the recent budget cuts. Even with that, most naval aircraft won’t be equipped with this data sharing technology until the end of the decade.
JTIDS was first tested on the EA-18G because this navy aircraft was designed to support navy and air force warplanes in combat. EA-18G saw combat for the first time over Libya in 2011. The EA-18G is equipped with the ALQ-99 radar jamming pod and an APG-79 phased array (AESA) radar, which also has some jamming capability (via the right software) as well as the ability to fry electronics. It was suggested that the EA-18G might have done this to some Libyan armored vehicles.
The EA-18Gs are replacing the aging navy EA-6Bs that now provide 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 carries a crew of four, while the highly automated 29 ton EA-18G will have only 2 people on board. The EA-18G carries up to 5 electronic warfare pods, plus 2 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and 2 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. The navy has received 52 EA-18Gs (by the end of 2013), and another 30 will come after that (at the rate of about 5 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.
Despite the high expense all the electronic gear, the F-18G is not the most expensive combat aircraft out there. The F-22 costs $355 million each. The low budget F-18E costs $94 million each, while the F-18G goes for $105 million. The F-35 costs over $130 million (and growing). Even unmanned aircraft are pricy, with the Global Hawk costing $182 million each (with high end sensors). Older fighters, like the F-16, cost $60 million and an F-15E goes for about $100 million. These prices constantly fluctuate because of the need to incorporate a share of the development cost for each aircraft built. While most development expense occurs before mass production begins, there is sometimes considerable additional development expense, or major refurbishment, later in the lifetime of an aircraft. Many modern warplanes cost more than most warships and have the same high maintenance (periodic refurbishment and development of new components) expenses.