The dependence of contemporary society and economies on electricity serves as a measurable weakness capable of being exploited by allies and adversaries at both the tactical and strategic level – while military assets, particularly sensitive facilities and platforms, are traditionally hardened against electromagnetic attack, the vulnerability of critical civilian and economic infrastructure is too enticing a target to pass up.
While traditional 'hard kill' deterrence platforms like ground-based strategic missiles, strategic bombers, ballistic missile submarines, fleets of powerful aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers and large, conventional armies have long the realm of major powers, the evolving geopolitical environment is serving to initiate a major tactical and strategic rethink for middle powers like Australia.
This has resulted in an period of unprecedented recapitalisation and modernisation for the Australian Defence Force and many peer-nations eager to level the tactical and strategic balance of power through the introduction of a 'high-low' mix of conventional and force multiplying tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities – enter a new generation of cost-effective, multi-domain and scalable 'soft kill' electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and platforms.
Growler and Peregrine - bedrock of an EW 'joint force'
Australia's use of the Growler platform – acquired as part of a $2.9 billion deal in response to a capability gap between the retirement of the F-111 and the arrival of the fifth-generation F-35 – served as the nation's first major foray into developing a credible, next-generation tactical and strategic electronic attack capability.
The Royal Australian Air Force's fleet of 11 EA-18G Growlers establish Australia as one of the foremost electronic warfare powers. Drawing on the operational success of the US Navy's Growlers that were responsible for blinding the Gaddafi regime in Libya and blunting the surge of Daesh in Libya,Growlers have emerged as a powerful force multiplier in both the US and Australian arsenal.
Australia's Growlers were part of a larger US Navy buy of 44 Super Hornets and Growlers in July 2014, with the first Australian EA-18G making its first flight in July 2015. All 12 of Australia's Growlers were formally welcomed to their home base at RAAF Amberley in 2017, providing air crews and pilots the opportunity to build familiarity and an understanding of the aircraft and its unique capabilities.
Growler serves as part of an integrated network of electronic attack and electronic warfare capabilities currently transforming the tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities of the RAAF. The recently announced acquisition of the MC-55A – an integrated airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare (AISREW) mission systems aircraft – serves as part of the next stage of evolution for the RAAF.
These two 'soft kill' capabilities form an integral part of the broader Plan Jericho concept and the development of a distributed lethality-focused, 'joint force' fifth-generation combat air force capable of delivering overwhelming technological superiority throughout the Indo-Pacific. Each of these platforms forms part of an integrated network when combined with existing platforms like the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
Blind a soldier for a second in a fight, he dies - blind a country for a minute, it collapses
Electronic warfare is emerging as one of the great tactical and strategic levelling forces in the 21st century concept of operations (CONOPS) and for nations like Australia, serves as a potent deterrence capability to replace and complement traditional 'hard kill' deterrence capabilities like long-range strike platforms across the air and sea domains.
As a result of the force multiplying capability of contemporary EW platforms, Australia has committed itself to a range of modernisation and domestic development programs to maintain and extend Australia's technological electronic attack and electronic warfare edge of potential adversaries. Defence Science and Technology has played a critical role in collaboratively developing advanced electronic warfare capabilities.
DST and industry partner Raytheon, responsible for the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) mid-band technology, have collaborated to support the development and introduction of decisive EW capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific through the development of capabilities like MFIRES – a platform that includes a radar warning receiver, providing electronic support and protection. Integrating multiple functions enables system success across the full EW mission by using less power, weight and space, all crucial elements in creating a significant advantage in electronic warfare.
The NGJ system will augment and ultimately replace the E/A-18G Growler aircraft’s ageing ALQ-99 tactical jammer with advanced airborne electronic attack capabilities for defeating increasingly advanced and capable threats. Developed in three frequency-focused increments – high-band, mid-band and low-band – NGJ will be capable of jamming multiple radar signals at the same time, including surveillance and air-defence radars.
Allies like the US have also sought to leverage the power of electronic warfare with Raytheon and Boeing developing the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), which serves a niche electronic warfare role by generating an electronic system damaging or destroying electromagnetic pulse (EMP) in a similar manner to a nuclear detonation.
CHAMP - Airborne and a naval system?
CHAMP is designed to be a cost-effective EW platform using precision guidance and navigation to maximise non-kinetic capabilities while emitting bursts of high-powered energy, effectively knocking out the target's data and electronic subsystems. CHAMP allows for selective high-frequency radio wave strikes against numerous targets during a single mission.
Designed from the ground-up to be air deployable, CHAMP is designed to be integrated into a range of stand-off type weapons systems, including the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) series and is capable of being deployed by existing fighter platforms, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a range of unmanned aerial vehicles to maximise the efficacy and deterrence capabilities of the platform.
For Australia, the importance of a credible long-range naval strike capability, combined with the need for a 'soft kill' option, positions DST's partnerships front and centre for developing a modified variant of the CHAMP platform for integration on Australia's next-generation naval platforms, including the Hobart and Hunter Class surface warfare ships, and as a potent deterrence capability fitted to land-attack or anti-ship cruise missiles for Australia's Attack Class submarines.