Future sees electronic warfare missions in the low-end spectrum
The Boeing EA-18G GROWLER aircraft in-service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are due to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in 2019. This means that the aircraft will be able to conduct a range of electronic warfare (EW) missions that are in the low-end spectrum and for self-defence. Therefore, it will allow GROWLERs to participate in most operations apart from high-end warfighting missions with electronic attack (EA).
It is expected that by mid-2021 the GROWLERs will be certified to conduct EA and a wider mission set in a contested environment. Full operational capability is expected in mid-2022, which will mean the GROWLER fleet can conduct two separate high-end operations simultaneously.
The EA-18G GROWLERs in the RAAF are operated by 6 Squadron out of RAAF Amberly and use 11 aircraft. It should be 12 but one aircraft suffered a ‘catastrophic’ engine failure in the US in January 2018 during take-off from Nellis Air Force Base in the US and is beyond repair. It is unclear if the RAAF will replace the aircraft but it will limit the extend to which 6 Sqn will be able to conduct operations and it is the likely cause of the delay to meet IOC that was expected in July 2018.
The RAAF decided to procure 12 new build EA-18G GROWLERs in May 2013 changing its earlier decision to modify existing F/A-18F Super HORNETs. The aircraft were delivered by July 2017 although training had started earlier in 2013 using US Navy (USN) variants. This has provided 26 pilots and EW officers. 6 Sqn transferred from being a Super Hornet squadron to the GROWLER in December 2016.
Sensors include the ASQ-228 ATFLIR electro-optical system and the ALQ-99 tactical jamming systems with the weapons fit comprising both the AGM-88B high speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) from Raytheon and AGM-88E advanced anti-radiation guided missile (AARGM) from Northrop Grumman (more on AARGM here). It ordered 70 HARM and 40 AARGM from the US through a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement in April 2017.
However, the Australian GROWLERs do not possesses the advanced C4I or Joint Electro-Magnetic Spectrum Optics (JEMSO) fit of their American counterparts. This means it is unable to coordinate as effectively with allies to avoid interference with other operations.
Under AIR5439 Phase 6 the RAAF plans to integrate new equipment to achieve more commonality with the USN. This includes a new ALQ-249(V)1 Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) from Raytheon to replace the ALQ-99 tactical jammer from mid-2020 and increase EA capabilities to allow joint operations with allies. This is likely to include an enhanced C4I and JEMSO but these are not expected to be introduced until the mid-2020s and not completed until 2035. This phase is slated to cost A$5-6 billion.
There are still issues with training facilities for the GROWLER as 6 Sqn lacks a dedicated EW test range in Australia and crews have to go to the US Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake to practise this kind of operation. There are plans to enhance both RAAF Oakey and the Delamere Air Weapons range in Northern Territory with the latter expected to get a full EW range by the end of 2021 in time for when GROWLER achieves FOC the following year.
Australia is expected to get two range training systems delivered under an FMS arrangement for A$115 million for both Oakey and Delamere. The training systems are expected to have Mobile Threat Training Emitter Systems (MTTES) in order to replicate surface threats from air defence missile and artillery systems. Delamere will have the live element of the Live, Virtual, Constructive (LVC) training that is expected to be developed that will be a key part of GROWLER operations to come.