Eight years ago, the Defense Department began thinking
bigger than it ever had about electronic warfare (EW). Soviet tactical weapons,
radars, and other sensors were becoming more sophisticated and harder to
counter at every turn. They threatened to overwhelm the US EW systems then in
service. So DoD set out to design and build new EW systems of unprecedented
potency and versatility, systems capable of coping with the threats of the
moment and for a long time to come.
The idea was sound, but the systems that sprang from it were
not. The Air Force sank into an EW morass from which it is just now extricating
itself. The story of how this happened goes back many years and is complicated.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
To the Air Force, no task is more urgent than seeing its
combat aircraft safely through or around enemy air and ground radar networks
and enabling the planes to defend themselves against highly sophisticated,
hard-to-jam SAMs, antiaircraft guns, and air-launched missiles. Airborne EW
systems devised to detect and jam, or otherwise foil, such radars and missiles
could well mean the difference between victory and defeat in the
electromagnetic milieu of modern warfare.
Unfortunately for USAF, its development of EW systems
through this decade has been, for the most part, dismal. Many new EW systems,
most notoriously the defensive avionics suite aboard the B-1B bomber, fall
short of performance expectations, cost too much, are taking far too long to
get into operation-or suffer from all such faults.
Chronic problems with the B-1B's electronic countermeasures
(ECM) have claimed the most attention, but are by no means the only ones
besetting the Air Force's EW community. New ECM systems for other combat
aircraft seem to have gone sour all over the place. Air Force leaders have
taken to criticizing the service's EW scheme of things quite openly.
Not long ago, for example, Gen. Bernard P. Randolph,
Commander of Air Force Systems Command, singled out the ECM scene for a
tongue-lashing, calling it "a disaster." With everything to lose as a
result of ECM deficiencies, Gen. Robert D. Russ, Commander of Tactical Air
Command, has on occasion been just about as harsh.
Now the Air Force is moving to set things right. It seems
determined to stick with several problem systems and make them work as well as
possible. The B-1B defensive avionics system is one. There are signs of
progress in USAF's program-by-program perseverance and signs of hope for the
future in its adoption of a more realistic attitude toward EW across the board.
Less Ambitious, More
USAF is taking a wholly different approach to designing and
developing EW systems, one that it sees as less ambitious than its approach of
recent years, in which its reach often exceeded its grasp.
Brig. Gen. Noah E. Loy, the director of acquisition for
electronic combat programs in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force,
explains. "The Air Force has decided to take an approach to EW that is
more doable. We're in the process of refining our EW requirements. We want to
make our systems simpler, not more complex. In the past, we have confused some
of our goals and strategies with what we thought would be possible in terms of
technical solutions. We had a tendency to think we needed a [EW] system in our
aircraft that was capable of taking on everything in the electromagnetic
environment. We are getting away from that."
The "think big" approach that USAF is turning away
from originated in a well-intentioned directive that Richard D. DeLauer, then
Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, sent to the military
services in 1981.
In it, Dr. De Lauer noted that the services were in the
habit of pursuing "only those EW programs designed against hostile
equipment that is already deployed or is well along in development" and
that "therefore we are well behind the emerging threat before we
He continued: "U sing current practices, there is no
possibility that we can field the EW capability needed-in time-to counter the
changes in the Soviet threat during the next ten years." He advised the
services, in planning for EW systems, to begin taking into account "the
projected threat, approved by the Defense Intelligence Agency, of estimated
future enemy capabilities based on intelligence, extrapolation of existing
enemy weapon designs, and anticipated enemy technological advances."
To help do this, the Defense Department forthwith enlisted
the services of experts in the US electronics industry. Given access to DIA
"threat documents" on Soviet electronic combat capabilities and
tendencies, fifty or so key executives of electronics companies joined with top
military and civilian EW officials in the defense establishment to form the DoD
Electronic Warfare Technical Study Committee.
Nice Try, Little
The EWTSC bent to analyzing and forecasting Soviet sensor
and signal processing technologies and systems-with much emphasis on the radars
and infrared guidance systems of Soviet SAMs and air-launched missiles. Meeting
at least monthly, its several specialized subcommittees also studied US needs
and prospects for EW technologies and systems to counter advances anticipated
in Soviet electronic combat capabilities.
This was a highly unusual endeavor. It meant that each
company represented on the committee was put in the position of sharing, by
virtue of its contribution to the common cause, at least some information about
its own electronics technologies. On the other side of the coin, all the
companies stood to benefit from the boom times in EW contracting that could be
anticipated and that happened-as a result of the DoD effort.
No one disputes that the EWTSC made a nice try. To this day,
industry executives who served on the committee claim that it served a useful
purpose. For example, one such executive, Sanders Associates President John
Krieck, says the committee's reports "did a great deal to broaden the
perspective" of the US EW community on the threat and on the technological
possibilities for countering it.
Dr. Krieck also recalls that the EWTSC's assessments of
Soviet technology and systems trends were fairly accurate and that
its conclusions and recommendations, all of which remain highly classified,
were pretty much on the mark.
The committee's work helped to promote the concept of
integrating all EW elements in future fighters around a common, high-speed
signal processor, a concept that is expected to become reality in the
integrated electronic warfare system (INEWS) of USAF's Advanced Tactical
For all the committee's sound insights and suggestions,
though, the actual payoff from its work has been, to all appearances,
disappointing. Programs for new and upgraded jammers, radar-warning receivers,
and chaff dispensers across the spectrum of combat aircraft have not panned out
or have wound up well in arrears of existing threats by the time they go into
As General Loy explains: "After we changed our way of
doing business in 1981, we set a whole bunch of programs in motion. A lot of
them were for developing new types of hardware we could build, such as antennas
to increase our sensitivity, and expanding RF [radio frequency] bandwidths in
the electromagnetic spectrum for detecting threats.
"We were also looking at microchips that could give us
the signal processing capability that we needed to move into a
software-intensive environment-to design [digital computer] hardware with
enough flexibility to handle the software changes that the threat would impose
on us in the future."
It didn't work out. "We ran into troubles,"
General Loy recalls. The computer hardware developed for new and updated EW
systems was not flexible enough, at first, to accommodate the required
software. When the hardware began coming around, the software lagged.
"Our software-writing capability did not keep up with
the development of the chips," explains General Loy. "The problem
with software development basically was that we outpaced the capability of
industry and society to produce software people to do the job."
He sums up: "So Dr. DeLauer's memo instituted a
cultural change -away from taking specific approaches to countering particular
threats, to looking at the enemy on a broader scale and trying to develop a
more generic systems-engineering approach to countering the threat on that
"We were not able to accomplish that. "
A major reason was the fallacy of an assumption that the
Pentagon and industry made about the advances to be expected in Soviet signal
processors. The expectation was that the Soviet military would sooner or later
emulate the US military by switching altogether from analog signal processors
to digital signal processors in their radars.
This mirror-imaging of projected Soviet systems led to
conclusions that those systems would be susceptible to the same jamming
techniques and technologies that US systems needed to be protected against.
It didn't turn out that way. The Soviets either were
incapable of fully exploiting digital computer technologies or chose not to do
so. Although they incorporated some digital technologies, they continued to
rely mainly on analog processors, which lend themselves to the incorporation of
The upshot was that the hardy analog electronics of Soviet
signal processors and ECCM confounded US EW devices and "denied us access
into the internal workings of those systems," General Loy explains.
By staying the course with analog processors, the Soviet
military also made it virtually impossible for the US electronics industry,
which left off developing analog technologies a long time ago, to simulate
Soviet systems. This was also a major setback for realism in the testing of US
EW equipment and for confidence in validating such equipment as being truly
capable of performing as advertised in combat.
Behind the Curve
Capabilities of individual systems aside, the central reason
for difficulty in electronic warfare is the very nature of the beast.
Robert W. Selden, Chief Scientist of the Air Force, provides
this perspective: "We're operating in a world where the amount of
electromagnetic energy is increasing at just an unbelievable rate. In any of
the standard scenarios of conflict in central Europe, for example, there are
electromagnetic radiations from hundreds if not thousands of radars , thousands
of communications systems-radios and other things, even lasers to some extent.
"The sophistication of these systems has increased
dramatically .... If you want to interfere with any of them you have to build
[electronic] machinery that listens, figures out what's going on, and decides
what to do about it, all in real time. If anybody wonders why we have trouble today
radars controlling the missiles, rather than the
radio-frequency waves from the antennas of those radars.
In theory there was nothing wrong with that DoD aspiration
to "jam behind the faceplates" of enemy weapon systems. Neutralizing a
missile before it is launched by jamming its fire-control computer is safer
than waiting until after it is launched to try jamming its target-homing
Says General Loy: "We were trying to deny missile
launch, because we knew if the missile never came combat, that ought to explain
Dr. Selden adds, "The technology in computing and in
the electronic systems that generate these signals and receive them is changing
faster than we can put systems into production .... If we start today, we're
going to have equipment in the field that is responding to a technical
capability of a couple of generations ago, maybe more."
This behind-the-curve characteristic of EW equipment is
exactly what the Defense Department tried to correct in the forward-looking approach
that it adopted in 1981. The built-in resistance of Soviet systems to
electronic invasion has been a major frustration for that approach.
A DoD top-priority goal was' to design jammers that would be
"smart" enough to disrupt electromagnetic emissions in the innards of
enemy electronic systems-emissions from signal processors of the
off the rail, it could never hit us. Now we're going back to
the way we used to do it, manipulating the emissions that are radiated from the
antenna. But that makes us do something else-create enough 'miss distance'
between our aircraft and [enemy] missiles once they're launched. This
requirement makes our ATF [Advanced Tactical Fighter] all the more
Technical reasons for the woes of US EW systems through this
decade are classified as to details. But other reasons abound.
A study conducted for AFSC's Aeronautical Systems Division a
few years ago cited Air Force and industry overoptimism about technologies as
probably the chief culprit. Among other problems detailed in the study were
rampant deficiencies of system integration, adversarial relations between the
Air Force EW R&D community and its contractors, unrealistic cost ceilings,
and debilitating cost/performance tradeoffs.
In one way or another, overoptimism may well have
contributed to all the others. At any rate, the findings of the study
apparently were a major reason for the subsequent reorganization of ASD's EW
shop at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and the start of something new there.
Last year, the Air Force Electronic Combat Office went into
business at Wright-Patterson. A prime goal of AFECO is consistency and balance
in the business of developing and acquiring EW systems. Not long ago, an AFECO
official was quoted as saying that the Air Force is "trying to do a better
job of defining an executable program" in EW and that its previous
inability to do so was "one of the common denominators of a failure we've
seen in the past."
For whatever reason, all manner of Air Force EW programs
fell by the wayside or limped along through this decade. Each was seen as
necessary to counter the threat that now looms in the European theater, to say
nothing of the threat that may be in store there. The threat is building
elsewhere, too. Sophisticated radar and infrared weapons built by the US, the
Soviet Union, and their respective allies have been on the rise in the Third
World for quite some time. A recent example was Libya's purchase of late-model
Soviet fighters with topnotch radars and ECM.
Among unclassified Air Force programs that were devised to
meet the threat but that got the axe were those for an "advanced
capability" jamming pod and a multipurpose EW Area Reprogramming
Capability. Also canceled were the Precision Location Strike System (PLSS), the
F/FB-111 internal jammer upgrade program, and directional receiver antenna
signal processors for F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft.
Radar warning receivers for fighters and attack aircraft
seem to have fared better, by and large, than jammers. New RWRs for the F-15
and the F-ll1 are finally looking good for production, their bugs having been
worked out, but a new, much coveted RWR for the F-16 is on hold.
Plagued by Delays
Delays have plagued two highly important EW endeavors:
strengthening and broadening the EF-11IA Raven's area-jamming system by means
of a more powerful radar and communications jammer and bringing to fruition the
long-coveted Airborne Self-Protection Jammer (ASPJ). One program made out
better than the other.
The EF-111A update program fell two to three years off the
pace and was finally called off. Its demise probably did as much as anything
else to raise the ire of the Air Force leadership about the service's EW state
of affairs. The reasons are that the ECCM systems of Warsaw Pact forces have
become alarmingly powerful and that the radars of those forces now sport such
jammer-daunting features as single-pulse, or "monopulse," radars
operating at extremely dense pulse rates, or frequencies.
The possibility that the Raven's EW prowess won't be enough
in the clutch is very worrisome. In combat, the Raven could be the franchise
for US forces. It could be called on to screen US and allied penetrating attack
aircraft by jamming enemy ground control intercept radars and SAM and AAA gun
radars from standoff range; to penetrate alongside bombers and fighter-bombers
and jam the early-warning and acquisition radars seeking them out; to fly near
battlefronts and shield close air support aircraft from antiaircraft radars
while the planes go after tanks; and to screen aircraft that are forming up or
doing radar-surveillance missions in friendly-but potentially perilous -skies.
The ASPJ was once seen as jamming just about all things for
all aircraft. But that was a while ago. The jammer has been so long in the
making that it may be past its prime against today's threats even as it enters
As far back as 1978, the Defense Department asked companies
with expertise in electronic warfare to propose designs for the ASPJ. It will
be yet another couple of years before the system goes operational in
Destined for deployment on Air Force and Navy fighters, the
ASPJ was seen in the beginning as the first ECM system to take full advantage
of the technological revolution in microelectronics. It was designed to embody
multiple, programmable microprocessors to make it capable of countering an
unprecedented variety of anticipated threats from SAMs and air-to-air missiles.
Extra capacity was built into it to enable it to accommodate new technological
features as time went by.
Compactness was a major aim.
The ASPJ was designed to combine a number of ECM
technologies into one miniaturized system of microprocessors, receiver,
amplifier, and wide-band and narrow-band transmitters that would take up only
2.3 cubic feet inside an aircraft.
The Pentagon's high hopes for the ASPJ in the late I 970s as
a first-rate now-and-future jammer marked the beginnings of the starry-eyed EW
policy that DoD would put in place in 1981.
The Westinghouse-ITT team of prime contractors for the ASPJ
has done a good job, by all accounts. But the jammer has been slow in coming
for a number of reasons some of them, such as funding fluctuations, beyond the
control of its contractors-and is only now on the verge of low-rate production.
Given its long gestation and growing pains, will the ASPJ be
capable of standing up to the Soviet ECCMs and jamming the Soviet weapons that
have come into play since it was designed? "I think ASPJ will do the major
things we need it to do against the threat it was designed against," says
General Loy. "We're finding there are some shortcomings in the [ASPJ]
system as the threat changes. However, we expect to fix the shortcomings
through a product -improvement program."
There are shortcomings galore in yet another major EW system
that USAF seems stuck with-the defensive avionics suite on the B-1B bomber. The
Air Force will do its best to bring that ALQ-161 system up to snuff, but admits
that it will probably never be as good as it ought to be.
The ALQ-161 got off to an uncertain start in the mid-1970s,
marked time after the original B-1 bomber program was called off in 1977, and
was caught short on technology when the bomber was revived as the B-1B in 1981.
It was designed to meet the Soviet threat as sized up by DIA in 1974, and it
was the first defensive avionics system ever designed to be totally integrated
aboard an aircraft.
The ALQ-161's merits began to look dubious as the Soviet
threat rapidly worsened and the integration of the system became ever more
challenging. To make matters worse, the capability of the system was cut back
to compensate for architectural problems and unexpectedly high development
In 1981, the Air Force moved to upgrade the ALQ-161 to bring
it abreast of the threat and orient it to future threats. The system's receiver
architecture was revised to accommodate new techniques and hardware components
that USAF decided it had to have. That decision was based on the results of
USAF's manned bomber penetrativity evaluation of the late 1970s and 1980.
In the MBPE, pulsed-Doppler radar developed for USAF's F-15
fighter-and thought to be in the works for Soviet fighters, too-was
"flown" against ALQ-161 architecture, which was found wanting. For
this and other reasons, USAF drastically raised the "sensitivity
requirements" of the system's receiver.
"So we added new [EW] techniques and the hardware
needed to produce those techniques on top of the old architecture that had
never been fully developed," General Loy explains.
"We felt we could do that, given new computer
technology. We also added a new computer and put a new high-order software
language into the system.
"The bottom line is that we added a lot of new stuff on
top of an old system and tried to complete the development as a total system.
We have not been able to develop that system to the full goal that we set
The computer-oriented system's major problem is one of
hardware, not of software. Says General Loy, "Software cannot fix the
hardware deficiencies and limitations built into the system from a previous
design. The basic receiver was designed from 1974 through 1978, and we assumed
it was good-even though we never had completely developed or tested its
architecture when we added the new capabilities that were required."
Problems brought on by such additions "plague all our
systems in some ways, although not as much as they do that one [the
ALQ-161]," General Loy says. The reason is that the other systems—for
example, jammers on the F-15, F-111, and B-52—had been more thoroughly
developed before undergoing modifications.
"All of them were designed to handle basically the same
kinds of older threats dating back to 1970. What we tried to do was elevate
them to meet the new threat capabilities," General Loy explains.
Avoiding or Defeating
Notwithstanding arms-control measures and negotiations,
those threats are getting worse all the time. In this decade alone, Warsaw Pact
forces have put into the field ten new SAM systems. Those forces are now said
to have deployed more than 700 EW aircraft, 10,000 intercept radars, 4,000
fighter/interceptor aircraft, 12,000 radar-controlled AAA systems, and 13,000
Despite its disappointments in EW, the Air Force will keep
working on new jammers and new weapons, such as antiradiation missiles and the
Tacit Rainbow radar-homing drone and others, to defeat the threat. But
defeating the threat may no longer be the name of the game in electronic
Right along, EW is becoming synonymous with avoiding the
threat instead, through tactics and by means of such stealth technologies and
platforms as the F-117 A fighter now in service in limited numbers, the
Advanced Cruise Missile, the B-2 bomber, and, later on, the ATF and USAF's
variant of the Navy's stealthy A-12 attack aircraft.
"We've had a tendency to think that defeating the
threat is the only capability we should be pursuing in electronic
warfare," says General Loy. "There are other capabilities that will
let us get in there. The avoidance capability, with stealth, is a major one.
And once we get into stealth in numbers, we can never go back. We will have
changed the playing field permanently."
As an admittedly disastrous decade in electronic warfare
comes to a close, the biggest challenge before the Air Force may well be its urgent
need to decide on the best blends of weapons and other systems for defeating,
degrading, and avoiding the enemy threat. This, says General Loy, is "why
it is so important for us now to get hold of our requirements process,"
wherein USAF makes just such decisions.
The heavy betting is that the Air Force will more and more
come down in favor of stealthy systems, such as the ATF, that can do all those
things to one degree or another.
The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 19, due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag