Next Generation airborne electronic attack plans revealed?

After years of debate about the future of tactical, airborne electronic attack for the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, it appears the F-35 will become the next-generation, digital warfare aircraft for both services.

The platform most in demand in combat today is some kind of electronic attack (EA) aircraft, say military operational experts. So the pressure for more aircraft and advanced capabilities is already an operational reality. But the basic question of who does what for whom and to whom remains unanswered.

“Who will provide electronic fires to ground troops in contact?” mused Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, program executive officer for the F-35 Lightning II. “That’s a core mission area for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Delivering electronic fires will be at the heart of what F-35 does. [But] the decision about how this [and other EA aircraft will be used in the electronic fires arena has not been made.”  (From 30 Nov 08 Aviation Week)

So let’s see if we have this straight — we’ve gone from crew requirements of 4 in the station wagon (aka EA-6B Prowler) to 2 in the Spark ‘vark and Super Bug (EF-111 and EA-18G Growler) to now 1?  Automated systems are wonderful and all, but comes a point where even a wünderplane like the F/A/E/-35 (hmm, FAE — that could be an unfortunate designation…) has limits.  And no, it’s not another (former) NFO bemoaning loss of job opportunities.

Let’s start with simple system requirements such as where the various antennae will be hung or implanted for receivers and transmitters without busting up its VLO capabilities, especially in the forward quarter.  Space, internal space that is, is already at a premium in something that is basically a flying drop tank carrying ordnance.  Factor transmit antenna sizes and some interesting warts could appear on the Lightning’s svelte frame.  Onboard power generation for power hungry transmitters will be another area of concern as all three previous EA platforms had twin engines with attendant power generation capabilities.  To be sure, the nature of EA will likely change as the requirement for wide area stand-off jamming will change and could possibly continue to be shouldered by the legacy platform EA-18G and an EB-52 if that concept is resurrected.  Those issues combined with the expected increased workload in the cockpit for a single seater make one almost wonder why penetration EA, which sounds like the mission for an EF-35, couldn’t be handled by smart(er) UCAV’s either autonomously or in some networked environment.  Certainly with the timeframe being considered it would make sense to run a parallel development program such that if one or the other reaches a technological or other programmatic impasse, there is another program of record that provides redundancy and avoids leaving gaps in a critical warfare area.

8 Comments

  1. C-Low

    Not saying I am sold on the idea BUT from what I understand the story goes…

    -Wing embedded antennae
    -F-35B style ducted fan area replaced by generator

    The first is part of the major sell I have seen on the F-22 (flying sensor stuff) and the second was a blurb I saw somewhere think tanking laser addition which also requires POWER.

    From what I can tell the power option is the primary goal/metric we will be seeing in the future. Many of that cutting edge albeit ASEA, ASES, Laser, X-wave, IR, ER, etc…

    Side note a #2 addition would be/should be added even thou technically that position could be beamed back. The UCAV weakness is that beaming back part and to tie the manned platforms which are supposed to be the Plan-B if beam back fails to beam back sees risky.

  2. JoeC

    “..something that is basically a flying drop tank carrying ordnance. ”

    Shades of the A4. Naval aviation has come full circle, from a simple plane that had a single mission, that of air lofting the big one into someone’s back yard…. back to that statement above.

    Sounds like the F35 is going to get the A4 treatment. Bigger engines. More airframe. More fuel. External humps and bumps and pods and whatnot.

    I guess actually DESIGNING AND AIRFRAME TO BE AN EW SPECIFIC PLATFORM is too much for the services. They ALWAYS have to modify something that was into something that ain’t supposed to be.

  3. SSG Jeff (USAR)

    The Spark Vark only had two? I thought they added a second pair of seats for that bird….

    I agree that they ought to have a second cockpit – one thing I noticed when in the Intel biz is that the closer one was to the target, the better the intel you got. I can’t quite see remoting the back seat like a UAV in a combat aircraft.

  4. SSG Jeff (USAR)

    Oh… and modifying an existing, tested airframe is a heck of a lot cheaper than designing a limited number purpose built airframe.

  5. Steeljawscribe

    SSG Jeff:
    “modifying an existing, tested airframe is a heck of a lot cheaper than designing a limited number purpose built airframe.”
    – Sometimes yes – sometimes no. The E-2 is arguably one of the most successful AEW platforms extant and began life as a purpose built airframe. It has been in continuous production since the early 1960s, albeit with significant updates to the weapons system.

    Joe:
    Indeed, the Spark ‘Vaark was a two seater. A lot of the automation work that N-G put into that effort set the stage for the EA-18G.

    As for the UAV aspect – I’m thinking more of autonomous operations (“search out, report, destroy, assess and report”). Familiar with the Harpy? It flies around, looking for a particular target and when that emitter is detected, it attacks by crashing into it. Imagine a UCAV, for example, that acts as a mother ship for a covey of Harpy-like devices as well as autonomously attacking networks and for a final piece d’resistance, carries a “conventional”EMP generator for going after the really high value unit when it reveals itself.
    – SJS

  6. The USMC is one of the services that are pushing hard for the EF-35 program. They have decided that the EF-18G is out of their price range. The USAF is looking hard at this as a way to salvage the money spent on the F-35 because costs are ballooning like a bad Adjustable Rate Mortgage.
    One of the things that Lockheed and some of the air warfare think tanks are pushing is using net-centric warfare capabilities along with the increase bandwidth capabilities of new radar and communications systems that in reality a single person platform that was the central hub of a series of UCAVs that are pre configured to either be the hitters (ie armed with SideARM, AARM, JSOW, or similar PGM’s) and soft killers that are configured with EW transmitters and signal arrays.
    So if you do it that way, all the EF-35C is doing is carrying the processors and display units. The pilot is looking at the mission map and if he sees an enemy air defense site pop up and he can select it with his HOTAS system and the computer may interpret which would be the easiest to kill it with. A jammer and put the AD site under its bubble or send in a hard killer to put a warhead on the forehead.
    If this comes along then in reality the complexity of the airplane will decrease. Mainly because as long as there are two wings, a working engine, air in the tires, and working comms then the mission will be the go. Once the plane arrives on station then all it needs to do is hook into the net and go into action. Heck it would be easier to cycle in and out reliefs on station.
    Will it all work? SJS ask your friends still in the AEW community how CEC (co-operative engagement capability) is working? That is supposed to work in the same manner.

  7. sid

    How does all this extra power consumption…and the extra APU to generate it…impact fuel consumption?

    Will this puppy be able to radiate when its on the tanker?

  8. Steeljawscribe

    I guess my point is that if we are going to such extent to automate the system, it seems to be not that great a leap to place it aboard a UAV which provides some opportunities not available with a manned EF-35 (jeez, where the h3ll are they going to stuff all this in an EF-35B for pity’s sake?). It wouldn’t necessarily need to link back for control so much as to report what it (a) has found and (b) is doing about it.

    Sid: On the tanker *nothing* is radiating (or at least is not supposed to…) I know the AF tankers in particular get very jumpy about making sure everything is cold before closing in to plug-in.
    – SJS

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