Navy's Next Gen Jammer Is Three Pods, Not One, And Competition For One Of Them Just Heated Up
With Raytheon out of the running for one pod, Northrop Grumman and L3 are vying to be a major part of the Navy's future electronic warfare ecosystem.
The U.S. Navy has awarded two separate contracts to L3 and Northrop Grumman, each worth more than $35 million, to continue developing prototypes of the Next Generation Jammer-Low Band jamming pod, or NGJ-LB, for the service’s EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. The deals came after a top U.S. government watchdog quietly rejected protests from Raytheon, which is already building the separate Next Generation Jammer-Mid Band pod, or NGJ-MB, against the service’s decision to select these firms. From everything we've seen so far, the competition surrounding the over-arching Next Generation Jammer program, which is set to eventually include three different types of pods, is already hot and looks set to only become more so as time goes on.
In August 2018, it had emerged that the Navy had picked L3 and a separate team consisting of Northrop Grumman and the Harris Corporation to continue with a technology demonstration ahead of choosing a single team to build the NGJ-LB. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected Raytheon’s subsequent protests on Oct. 22, 2018, which cleared the way for the formal contracts on Oct. 25, 2018. The service also rejected another offer from an industry team consisting of Lockheed Martin and Cobham, but neither of those companies filed a complaint.
“We’ve been down-selected on Next-Generation Jammer Low Band,” Kathy Warden, President, Chief Operating Officer and CEO Elect of Northrop Grumman, had proudly reiterated in a conference call with reporters to discuss the companies third-quarter earnings on Oct. 24, 2018.
The plan as it stands now is to have both L3 and Northrop Grumman and Harris supply prototype pods for testing at the Navy’s Facility for Antenna and Radar cross section Measurement, or FARM, at Patuxent River in Maryland. An F/A-18E Super Hornet will act as the surrogate aircraft through a series of tests, carrying the pods on the aircraft's centerline, or number six, station. Based on the results of this evaluation, the service plans to pick a single design for further development.
The low-band jammer will be an extremely important addition to the EA-18G’s capability set. These aircraft, which have been operational in the Navy service since 2009 and joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 2017, have been using upgraded versions of the AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods, also known as the Tactical Jamming System (TJS), which Northrop Grumman developed first for the EA-6B Prowler dating back to a half a century ago.
Since then, the AN/ALQ-99 has proven to be a capable system, with two separate variants to jam high- and low-band signals including radars and communications nodes. The pods feed into a central processing system installed inside the aircraft, which has the ability to classify and direction-find threat emitters, giving the complete system a secondary signals intelligence capability.
The EA-18Gs often carry the low-band version of the pod on the centerline position. You can tell the difference between the two because the low-band version has somewhat of an hourglass shape cross-section while the high-band pods are more rectangular shaped.
Unfortunately, these aging pods have also had persistent reliability issues, including in their low-band functionality. In 1998, the Navy hired Northrop Grumman to update the AN/ALQ-99s, as well as the Prowler's other systems, as part of the massive Improved Capability III (ICAP III) upgrade program. On Oct. 17, 2018, Northrop Grumman received a separate contract worth more than $697 million to continue upgrading and other support for the existing AN/ALQ-99s.
Still, the Navy had put off developing a true replacement for the ALQ-99 TJS for years, finding the system sufficient for supporting the kind of operations the United States has been engaged in primarily since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq, EA-6Bs and EA-18Gs have notably used their pods to prevent militants from remotely detonating improvised explosive devices.
Prowlers also took part in the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Growlers flew near Libya during the NATO-led intervention there in 2011, providing essential electronic attack and suppression of enemy air defenses capabilities. More recently, in April 2018, a Marine EA-6B helped clear the way for Air Force B-1 bombers to fire Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) cruise missiles at chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
But there is an increasing need for a more capable system now that the U.S. military is focusing more on preparing to fight potential high-end conflicts against near-peer opponents, such as Russia or China. Both of those countries have invested significant resources into the development of improved sensors to support their increasingly complex integrated air defense networks and extensive electronic warfare systems, themselves.
Australia is also in line to receive the various Next Generation Jammer pods and any future EA-18G customers would likely buy the different systems along with the aircraft.
The more reliable “NGJ-LB will address AEA [Airborne Electronic Attack] capability and sufficiency gaps against enemy threats operating in the lower frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum,” the Navy’s budget request for the system for the 2019 Fiscal Year explained. “NGJ-LB will provide the ability to effectively engage enemy threats from increased stand-off distances, employ increased capacity (number of jamming assignments) against enemy targets, and support agile employment by operators.”
The NGJ-LB will likely feature a core jamming system that uses active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology over previous directional antennas, which will give Growlers greater flexibility and power to engage numerous hostile emitters at one time and do so more precisely at longer ranges. Raytheon’s NGJ-MB pod, which is further along in development, also uses an AESA-based system to provide similarly improved capabilities against threats in the mid-band spectrum.
The added precision the AESA-based system offers means the jammer is less likely to scramble friendly emitters near the target area. The range factor will also be especially important given that the EA-18Gs are non-stealthy platforms that would incur increasingly greater risks the deeper they would have to fly towards or into hostile airspace in order to be effective at supporting other air combat aircraft.
The low-band pod will also be ideally suited to jamming longer-range, lower-frequency radars, which may be able to detect stealthy aircraft. This is also part of the reason why the Navy sees the EA-18Gs as an essential companion to its F-35C Joint Strike Fighters.
The Navy expects the Growlers to primarily perform so-called “Modified Escort Jamming,” which involves the aircraft flying safely outside of the known range of enemy surface-to-air missiles. However, the range of these threats and the radars and other sensors that are associated with them are only increasing, which requires the increased range of the Next Generation Jammers.
So Growlers can blind or confuse low-frequency radars from standoff ranges as the F-35s approach, then the F-35's own tactical electronic warfare suite can deal with any higher-frequency threats that may get a glimpse of them close up, including jamming fire control radars that operate at higher frequencies. Of course, their stealthy shape and coatings are optimized to drastically degrade the effectiveness of those systems as well. The Growlers will also provide support to the service's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets using a different set of combined tactics and in lower threat environments.
It's also worth noting that Growlers will work in concert with other new systems that can distribute the electronic warfare fight over a greater area. These potentially include jammer packing loitering air-launched drones and most importantly, Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD). The Navy has taken the reigns of that program with their MALD-X, which mixes the capabilities of MALD-J, which carries an onboard jammer, with new possibilities for the modular missile-like system. You can read all about MALD-X here.
The Navy also wants the final Next Generation Jammer pod configurations to have an “open” modular architecture both when it comes to the physical systems inside and the software running them. This will help the service rapidly develop updated systems to respond to emerging threats in the future and quickly slot them into the existing shell. These additional capabilities could include giving the system a means to launch remote cyber attacks on hostile air defense networks, spoof the signature of the Growler or other friendly aircraft, conduct more advanced signals intelligence missions, or even destroy enemy emitters with a high-powered burst of microwave energy. AESA arrays also have a latent, but downright incredible communications capability that is just now being more deeply explored by the services.
As noted, the NGB-LB will only be one part of a three-part system, which could ultimately see EA-18Gs carrying low-, mid-, and high-band jamming pods potentially from three separate contractors all at once. This will give a single aircraft improved flexibility to respond to multiple threats across different bands at once and allow the crew to quickly shift tactics in case hostile radars and other emitters try to modulate their signals to try to avoid being jammed.
The Navy has been pursuing this incremental approach with an eye toward being able to relatively rapidly field each system in succession since the mid-2000s, initially referring to the three systems as Next Generation Jammer Increments 1, 2, and 3. However, developmental hurdles are already threatening to delay the deployment of NGJ-MB, which may have influenced the service’s decision to go with another contractor for the low-band system.
Though the Navy had a reasonable assessment of the maturity of the technology required for the pod and the jamming system therein, “the performance expectations of the NGJ Mid-Band system pushed the limits of power generation and jamming capability while constraining the materials and components to stricter size and weight requirements than the previous systems,” a report that the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General released in March 2018 explained. In short, fitting everything inside a suitably aerodynamic pod that meshes well with the design of the EA-18G had proven complicated despite a good understanding of the various factors at play.
For one, Raytheon’s mid-band jamming pod, also known as the AN/ALQ-249(V)1, has a complex system involving two pairs of doors that open up while the system is active to allow air to drive the built-in ram air turbine in order to provide the necessary power. The older AN/ALQ-99s have a small propeller at the front for this purpose, which is simpler in its basic concept, but also produces added drag. Of course, when the doors on Raytheon's pod are open, they're also producing extra drag.
The design also renders much of the center section of the pod unusable for jammers or related systems, which pushes the AESA antennas to the front and the back. This could limit the ability of the system to engage emitters situated on either side of the aircraft at long-ranges.
The heavier and larger the pods are and the more they impact both the maneuverability and range of the Growlers carrying them. This could prove to be problematic since there are no plans as of yet to give the EA-18Gs conformal fuel tanks or more powerful engines.
The system’s size and general configuration also has to be set up in a way that doesn’t interfere with any other electronics on the aircraft. The AN/ALQ-99s themselves required significant modifications to prevent the jammers from degrading the functionality of the plane’s own AESA radar and other systems, according to a 2010 GAO report.
During the 2017 Fiscal Year, the Navy uncovered “deficiencies in modeling, assumptions, and methodologies used in the design of the pod structure,” the service’s budget request for the 2019 Fiscal Year noted. “These deficiencies are driving a redesign of the pod structure, but subsystem design, development, manufacturing, integration, and test are continuing independent of the pod structure redesign effort.”
These issues have pushed development of the NGJ-MB into 2020 at least. The Navy’s original plan had been for the pods to reach initial operational capability that year and it’s not clear whether or not that will happen. In July 2018, U.S. Navy Captain Michael Orr, the service’s Program Manager for the overarching Airborne Electronic Attack program, told Breaking Defense that the “Next Generation Jammer” would be operational by 2022, but it’s not clear if he was talking about the mid- or low-band system.
The Navy had wanted to have the low-band system ready by 2022, but it’s not clear how much its schedule is tethered to the development of the mid-band pod, if at all. The still notional high-band system could come as early as 2024.
But what is clear is that the Navy is looking to push ahead as fast as it can to acquire the various Next Generation Jammer pods in order to give its EA-18Gs a major boost in capability they already been waiting on for some time. The introduction of competition across the various pods that make up the entire system should only help this effort and it could be an especially big break for Northrop Grumman, which can also leverage its past experience with supporting the AN/ALQ-99 system as a whole. If they end up besting L3 and producing the low-band Next Generation Pod, it will keep the firm at the forefront of the Navy's electronic warfare portfolio decades to come.