Growlers Down Under

Nigel Pittaway covers the arrival of the first four Australian EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley in south-west Queensland

Sgt Mick Bott/Royal Australian Air Force


Two of the aircraft (A46-305 and A46- 306) made their public debut at the Australian International air show, where their arrival formed part of the Chief of Air Force’s showcase, including a Super Hornet handling demonstration and flypast from one of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifters.

The Growlers appeared on the opening trade day of Avalon on February 28 and were witnessed by Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Davies and Australia’s Minister for Defence, Senator Marise Payne. One aircraft was towed into the static display and formally welcomed by AM Davies and Senator Payne.

Senator Payne said: “Australia is the only country outside the United States flying the EA-18G Growler and its arrival is a significant leap forward in Australia’s joint electronic warfare capability and introduces a dedicated electronic attack option. The Growler can disrupt military electronic systems, such as radars, to protect personnel and improve situational awareness.”

Senator Payne also used the opportunity to announce Australia will enter into a co-operative agreement with the United States Navy to participate in the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) programme.

She said: “This is a AUD250 million investment by the Turnbull Government that will future proof the Growler’s capability. As this is a rapidly evolving area we will work in partnership with the United States Navy to develop the next generation jamming capability, which will ensure that these aircraft remain at the technological forefront throughout their service life.”

Australia’s Growler Programme

The RAAF is acquiring 12 EA-18Gs under the aegis of Project Air 5349 Phase 3 and all aircraft are expected to have arrived in Australia by the middle of the year.

The aircraft already delivered will not fly locally until the July timeframe, as Australian crews complete their training with the US Navy at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, but will be operated from Amberley by No.6 Squadron, part of No.82 Wing, Air Combat Group.

The unit previously operated the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet from Amberley and stood down as a Super Hornet squadron, following a final sixship flypast on November 23 last year. Once fully operational, 6 Squadron will boast the only airborne tactical jamming capability to reside outside the US Navy and Marine Corps.

Nigel Pittaway

RAAF Growlers differ from their US Navy counterparts in that they are capable of carrying the Raytheon ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod and AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile. EA-18G A46-306 on static display at Avalon carried the ATFLIR pod, together with a pair of EDO Corporation ALQ-99 jamming pods and Raytheon AGM- 88B High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles. Also displayed alongside the jet was an example of the Orbital ATK AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile, which has been ordered by the RAAF.

Operational Capabilities

Speaking at Avalon, Air Marshal Davies described the capabilities Growler brings to the wider Australian Defence Force, as well as the RAAF itself: “With Growler’s arrival at Avalon we have, for the first time in our history, a force-level electronic warfare aircraft. The acquisition itself was straightforward. Australia sent a Letter of Request to the US Government, Boeing manufactured the aircraft, we paid for them and then took delivery. That’s a capability acquisition of a known aircraft.

On static display at Avalon, EA-18G A46-306 carried a pair of ALQ-99 jamming pods and AGM-88B High-Speed Anti- Radiation Missiles.
Nigel Pittaway

“But we have had to take a force of men and women who have never worked with that level of electronic warfare before and train them from scratch, and that’s only step one. Step two, which is even harder, in my view, is how we get ourselves as an Air Force, to understand that the Growler isn’t just another fighter that flies on the wing of a Super Hornet or Classic Hornet, or even an F-35 in due course. “This aircraft will spend more time with the Army and Navy than with the Air Force. It will spend more time on the specialised outcomes that we seek without having a kinetic effect, but one that still has an effect on the battlefield, whether that’s on real operations or on exercise. So changing our mind set here from, ‘We have to bomb them, or we have to shoot them’ to, ‘We have to affect them’, is really quite a step.

“The Growler brings with it the opportunity for us to embed it with a nonkinetic option. At the moment, for most of the target sets that we train for the option is, of course, a kinetic one. Growler brings the opportunity for us to operate in an electronic space, because we want to have a particular electronic effect: that is, not allow someone to use a particular device. It could be that we’d just like to disguise where we are and what we’re doing. It is very much a surgical aircraft in terms of us being able to determine what effect we want on the battlefield and its versatility is one of the true elements of the Growler. It’s now an option in the electronic spectrum.”

Because its electronic warfare capability has been built from scratch by the RAAF, albeit with a great deal of co-operation from the US Navy, the timetable for the introduction of Growler into Australian service is relatively generous. Initial operational capability is due to occur in 2018, but final operational capability is not planned to be achieved until the middle of 2022, as experience is gained.

When asked about the announcement that Australia will partner with the United States on the development of some aspects of the NGJ, in particular why cooperation is necessary and what it will add to the capability, AM Davies pointed to the technological development of weaponry and counter-measures over history.

He explained: “We’ve seen the development of warfare, all the way from having knives and black powder, bows and arrows, and we’ve evolved as militaries to be able to counter each new threat and, indeed, where we can, to be in front of it. That evolution is a quite necessary one; those potential adversaries are not standing still. They themselves are evolving and therefore we must evolve as well.”

Advanced Growler

The NGJ is just one part of the capabilities of what will become the Advanced Growler and, in Australian terms, is now being defined under Phase 6 of Air 5349.

Existing ALQ-99 jamming pods are upgraded versions of pods that first saw operational service during the Vietnam War and are no longer in production. Australia is therefore seeking to join the US Navy development programme as a co-operative partner, in much the same way as it has done with the P-8A Poseidon currently being delivered to the RAAF and as it also intends to do with the MQ-4C Triton, which will arrive early in the next decade.

Another component of the Advanced Growler is likely to be conformal fuel tanks (CFT), which have been built by Northrop Grumman for the Boeing Advanced Super Hornet Programme, but are arguably even more applicable to the Growler.

One removable CFT is mounted on either side of the spine of the aircraft and does not require major modifications to either the aircraft’s structure or its internal fuel system. The tanks have already been developed and aerodynamically tested by Boeing.

Adding CFTs allows the removal of the two 480-gallon drop tanks and their associated pylons or, alternatively, additional weapons can be carried. The manufacturer says the removal of the tanks and pylons results in an additional bringback weight of around 1,012lb (460kg), while providing better aircraft performance.

A Boeing spokesperson commented that the CFT allow the Super Hornet, or Growler, to fly further, with less drag, while maintaining its low observable signature: “We are in talks with the US Navy about Advanced Super Hornet, and those discussions include CFTs. The CFTs are of interest for the Advanced Super Hornet as well as the Growler and, in addition, Boeing has discussed the capabilities of the conformal fuel tanks with our current and future international operators: Australia, Canada, Kuwait and others.”

“Changing our mindset from, we have to bomb them, or we have to shoot them’ to, we have to affect them, is quite a step.” Air Marshal Davies

The EA-18G Growler is always distinguishable from a Super Hornet by its wing tip pods housing the ALQ-218 receivers.
Nigel Pittaway

In November 2016, Kuwait became the first likely customer for the CFTs, when the US Defense Security Co-operation Agency announced the possible sale of 40 F/A-18 Super Hornets, including eight F/A-18Fs equipped with CFTs.

The Boeing spokesperson said: “The reduced drag of the CFTs allows for fuel saving, providing the same range for less fuel. Removing the two underwing drop tanks and associated pylons provides better unobscured jamming. There are no performance disadvantages and they can be retrofitted to all current Super Hornets and Growlers in the fleet, which will require a one-time change to the internal aircraft plumbing and wiring. Advanced Super Hornets and Advanced Growlers will have these changes incorporated in production.

The Boeing spokesperson also said CFTs are being considered by the US Navy and that Australia has also expressed interest in the range advantage CFTs bring to its mission set, for both its Growlers and Super Hornets.

Threat Emitters

One of the key components of an electronic warfare capability such as the Growler is the ability to test and train under operational conditions. Money has been invested in not only upgrading Australia’s range capability, but also in continuing the necessary technological evolution.

Speaking to AIR International late last year, Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, then the Director General of Capability Planning at Air Force Headquarters in Canberra, said one of the measures has been the acquisition of a Mobile Threat Training Emitter System (MTTES), which was approved by the Australian Government in 2014 and will become operational later this year.

The MTTES will simulate modern ground-based air defence threats, with a density representative of various integrated air defence systems in use around the world. One system will be deployed to the Western Training Area, in the airspace to the west of Amberley for use by 6 Squadron crews to locate electronic emissions quickly and accurately. The second system will be installed in the Delamere Air Weapons Range in the remote Northern Territory as part of a range upgrade in 2018 and will allow the jamming pods to be used with few restrictions.

Looking to the future, development of an Advanced MTTES system is now under consideration by the RAAF, using local radar technology. This may also have potential for sales back into the United States.

Air Cdre Kitcher explained: “The current MTTES system will be able to train the current Growler capability with no problem, and to a certain extent even the Advanced Growler capability; but as you get a more advanced platform you need a more advanced training system with which to train.

“Advanced MTTES is looking at how to integrate Australia’s CEA Technologies advanced phased array radar technology into the current MTTES system. The initiative is progressing well. The Advanced Growler, for Air 5349 Phase 6, is also progressing, and is looking at upgrading the current Growler capability to the US Navycommon Advanced Growler capability.”

Air Commodore Kitcher notes the US Air Force test community has already bought a number of ground-based phased array radars developed by CEA Technologies, which are largely concerned with testing the F-35 Lightning II, and these are now being installed at Air Force bases in the United States.

He said: “I think you will find that when the Air Force sees how well the system works and, although admittedly the Advanced MTTES is still three or four years away, and when the US Navy sees how that works, then I think it becomes a logical option for them to consider. There’s nothing certain, but I think it will be logical for other elements of the US to look at these advanced radars and then see if they want to adopt our Advanced MTTES system.”