Growler goes autonomous

Boeing and the US Navy have successfully flown a pair of EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft autonomously.

Testing – which consisted of 21 manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) demonstrations across four flights – was staged from Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland. The demonstrations saw two EA-18Gs fly as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) while being controlled by a third, manned Growler, acting as mission controller. No further details of the missions were provided.

EA-18G pair [US Navy/Elizabeth A Wolter]
A pair of Boeing EA-18G Growlers - BuNo's 168377 'SD-523' (c/n G63) and 169143 'SD-527' (c/n G134) - assigned to the US Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), fly in formation over the Atlantic Ocean in August 2018. US Navy/Elizabeth A Wolter

The flights took place during annual fleet experiment (FLEX) exercises held by the Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC). The US Navy and Boeing aimed to prove “the effectiveness of technology allowing F/A-18 Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers to perform combat missions with unmanned systems”.

Tom Brandt, Boeing’s MUM-T demonstration lead, said: “This demonstration allows Boeing and the navy the opportunity to [analyse] the data collected and decide where to make investments in future technologies… It could provide synergy with other US Navy unmanned systems in development across the spectrum and in other services.”

EA-18G Growler pair [US ANG - MSgt Matt Hecht] #1
A pair of US Navy EA-18Gs from Electronic Attack Squadron 136 (VAQ-136) 'The Gauntlets' on the flight line at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Michigan during exercise Northern Strike 19 in July. US Air National Guard/MSgt Matt Hecht

After the US Navy announced its interest in upgrading its Growler fleet to Block II standard in 2019, with Boeing designing the upgrades, the company stated that the Block II-configured EA-18Gs would have the capability to manage ‘Loyal Wingman’-type autonomous platforms.

“This technology allows the navy to extend the reach of sensors while keeping manned aircraft out of harm’s way… It’s a force multiplier that enables a single aircrew to control multiple aircraft without greatly increasing workload. It has the potential to increase survivability as well as situational awareness”, Brandt added.

Boeing Airpower Teaming System [Boeing]
​​​​​​A look into the future - a flight of BATS UCAVs form up alongside an F/A-18F Super Hornet. Boeing 

F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers have a significant presence in the development of Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (BATS) which aims to be a low-cost, attritable force multiplier, working as a ‘Loyal Wingman’ unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). This concept sees one or more UAS controlled by manned platforms in the battlespace, increasing combat air mass, providing support and reducing the risk for aircrews in high-threat scenarios.

Boeing – in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – is developing the BATS as part of the air arm’s Plan Jericho. The RAAF operates a mix of F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers which could be employed as the manned mission-controlling platforms to operate the BATS in an operational theatre.