Supersonic SIGINT: Will F-35, F-22 Also Play EW Role?
Touted as the world’s next-generation stealthy jet fighters and attack aircraft, the F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) may also excel in another area: electronic eavesdropping. The aircrafts’ combination of powerful phased array AESA radars, passive electromagnetic antennas and sensors embedded throughout their frames, powerful onboard computer processing, and secure high-bandwidth communications will give them capabilities once available only to dedicated electronic attack aircraft.
As both of these aircraft programs come under threat of further reductions or cancellation, Pentagon officials are becoming more willing to discuss some of these additional capabilities – and their implications.
Earlier generations of electronic warfare aircraft have taken one of three paths:
The most common tactical option for electronic attack takes an existing airframe such as the A-6 Intruder (EA-6B Prowler) or F-111 Aardvark (the recently-retired EF-111 Raven, aka. “Spark Vark”), then modifies it via new wiring, changes to the airframe, and additional pods. The price has typically been reduced performance, reduced weapons capability, and sometimes even a larger basic radar signature for the airframe. The pending EA-18G Growler, based on the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, has avoided some but not all of these typical tradeoffs.
The alternative has usually involved creation of an ELINT (electronic intelligence) plane by filling an airliner airframe with ultra-powerful sensors and loads of computer processing, then operating it at a safe distance from threats because it lacks either the performance or the weapons to defend itself. Ground surveillance aircraft like the E-8 Joint STARSand NATO’s AGS program, AWACS air surveillance planes like the E-3 Sentry, and signals intelligence planes like the RC-135 Rivet Joint, RC-7 “Crazy Hawk” and EP-3E Aries all offer example of this approach.
The final ELINT option involves ultra-secret “black” programs that produce limited numbers of exceptional intelligence aircraft like the U-2 Dragon Lady and SR-71 Backbird, designed to fly and survive in any environment. These planes fly very different mission profiles than tactical aircraft, however, and carry no weapons themselves. This has made them something of a non-factor in terms of tactical support, though they have proven exceptionally useful for more strategic roles.
In contrast, the F/A-22 and F-35 may be able to cut through many of these tradeoffs – and in so doing, offer U.S. and allied commanders new tactical options.
Their need to operate in high threat environments resulted in a built-in complex of passive electromagnetic surveillance sensors along the outside edges of the aircraft. These embedded sensors allow it to rapidly identify and locate signals, assessing threats and allowing avoidance without creating penalties to performance, payload or signature. That assessment is done thanks to very high throughput networks within the aircraft, and a “common integrated processor” computer core that has been described as the equivalent of two Cray supercomputers.
The Raptors’ powerful phased array radar may even be usable as a weapon of sorts; StrategyPage has opined that with the addition of other equipment, future upgrades may make it possible to focus enough energy from the F/A-22’s AESA radar in particular to damage the electronics of enemy sensors.
When combined with the aircraft’s “supercruise” ability to fly above Mach 1 for long periods and its stealthy features, the F-22 Raptor’s capabilities are significantly ahead of any current electronic attack airplane.
A pair of C4ISR Journal articles describe the growth of these capabilities as planned additions to the program. In the 1995 report “Concurrency and Risk of the F-22 Program,” the Defense Science Board Task Force cited “multiple (15-20) sources of passive surveillance” planned for the Raptor. “The passive surveillance system includes many stressing performance requirements,” the report said. “Most are beyond anything previously accomplished on any airborne platform, regardless of size.” At the time, these sensors were envisioned as survivability enhancers.
Then a Kosovo after-action report sent to Congress in 2000 identified a number of issues with existing assets like the aging EA-6B Prowlers, from problems finding and targeting Serb missile sites to interference with friendly targeting devices. C4SI Journal reports that this report launched a classified study of electronic warfare improvements, which in 2001 identified the F-35 and F/A-22 Raptor as nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms due to their planned capabilities.
The F-22’s stealth and consistent Mach 1+ supercruise may mission profiles that resemble the recently-retired Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird, whose speed and operating altitude enabled it to fly directly over even the most protected areas to gather its information.
The F-35 offers a number of similar capabilities in terms of sensors, radar, and computing power; nevertheless, its attenuated stealth and lack of supercruise would probably make its ISR capabilities more of an incidental accompaniment to its strike missions or an option within lightly defended areas.
These abilities have a number of implications, especially with respect to the F/A-22 and JSF’s role as “door kicker, first day” aircraft. Their ability to distribute information at high speed enabled them to provide advance surveillance and/or lead the attack, then upload information on enemy radars, communications et. al. to a wide spectrum of follow-on strike platforms, dedicated intelligence aircraft like the E-3 AWACS and J-8 JSTARS, ground forces, and theater commanders. Unlike standard reconnaissance overflights, the enemy is compelled to activate all defensive systems because the attack is real. Once activated, however, they become widely-identified and distributed targets for destruction, either immediately or by follow-on waves using precision ranged weapons.
The US Marines plan to operate the F-35B as a cornerstone of their future force, and they’re thinking even more tactically.
In February of 2005, the Marines hired Penn State University to study how the JSF might handle other forms of electronic warfare (EW). C4ISR Journal also reports comments from Lockheed F-35 program manager David Jeffrys: “For about the past six months, the Marines have been coming to us and asking if there was anything the JSF could do to support the guys on the ground, to shut down a communications system.” That could mean anything from jamming IED signal links to eavesdropping on or interrupting the tactical communications of enemy commanders; nevertheless, the ability to offer such capabilities in while conducting traditional strike roles would enable new kinds of air missions against enemy forces.
The plane’s potential as a digital killer blurs the traditional line between platforms that collect aerial electronic intelligence and those that act on it. A plane that drops precision munitions may also sever analog and digital links in an enemy network: between troops, between anti-aircraft missiles and their guidance radar, between an insurgent’s cell phone and a roadside bomb.
Apparently the US Marine Corps, which intends to buy around 480 F-35s, isn’t the only JSF customer interested in a plane that can perform strike and electronic warfare roles. According to C4ISR, Jeffrys has said: “We have discussed electronic attack with every customer, and every single one of them said, ‘We want more of that.’ ”
The F-35 JSF will have an advanced electronics suite of its own, and is expected to enter service with consortium countries Australia, Britain’s Royal Navy, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey, and all three branches of the US military. Norway is a member of both the F-35 and Eurofighter consortia, which places its purchase in doubt. India has also expressed interest in the F-35, and the F-35B STOVL is Spain’s only real option if they wish to replace their naval Harriers.
Distribution of these technologies may not stop there, either. There are rumours that the embedded-antenna technology may be further developed for the next generation of unmanned strike aircraft, including the X-45C and X-47B J-UCAS. The RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, which has already been fitted with SIGINT/ELINT sensors, is another top candidate for future technology iterations.
As computer users know, when it comes to connectivity quantity has a quality of its own. Embedded sensors, plus networked systems, plus tactical electronic attack planes that can combine this task with strike capabilities and reconnaissance roles that set up follow-on attacks… offers a truly formidable challenge to any enemy defensive systems.
As long as the cost of adding these capabilities doesn’t cripple one’s ability to buy the key platforms that make up the system, the result may be to take the American way of warfare in the air to a whole new level.
Additional Readings & Sources
- Aerospace.RU – F-22 Raptor tructural Design & Systems overview. Contains diagrams that give some idea of the Raptor’s EW and communications equipment.
- C4ISR Journal (Nov 1/10) – F-35 as ISR collector: Air Combat Command isn’t so sure. The problem isn’t the aircraft. It’s the plane’s limited bandwidth for transmissions, need to maintain stealth; and the Air Force’s requirements and mission definition process.
- Aviation Week (Nov 30/08) – F-35 To Become Electronic Attack Aircraft
- Avionics Magazine (October 2005) – F-35 Integrated Sensor Suite: Lethal Combination
- C4SIR Journal (August 23/05) – Revolutionizing Electronic Warfare: JSF Will Combine Strike, Jamming, Intelligence
- C4SIR Journal (June 17/05) – Supersonic SIGINT is Back
- StrategyPage (June 10/05) – Selling F-22’s Secrets in Order to Save It