The EA-18G Growler Has Its Own Topgun School For Electronic Attack Instead Of Dogfighting
An inside look at how 'Havoc' turns U.S. Navy EA-18G crews into wizards of the invisible art of electronic warfare.
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While the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Topgun, is world-famous for its work in teaching high-end air-to-air combat skills, its fellow Airborne Electronic Attack Weapons School, known as Havoc, tends to sit in the shadows. This elite school prepares EA-18G Growler aircrews for the rigors of modern-day air combat, following much the same mantra as Topgun. While the traditional techniques of air-to-air and air-to-ground employment of fighter aircraft are well documented, the EA-18G’s electronic attack mission remains something of a dark art.
Like Topgun, the Growler equivalent at Havoc is part of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), and it is tucked away in the same nondescript building at one end of the long flight line at Naval Air Station Fallon, in Nevada. Despite the lack of fanfare, just like its sister organization, Havoc’s activities are at the forefront of modern Naval Aviation.
Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) essentially involves the offensive and defensive suppression of an enemy’s electromagnetic spectrum, including radars and communications. AEA includes the ability to monitor hostile electromagnetic activity, as well as to evaluate, disrupt, manipulate, and even disable the related systems. These could be the nodes that typically form part of an Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), which can collect tracking data and can disseminate it to various “shooters,” such as surface-to-air missile sites, that are then able to tackle an incoming threat. The ability to confuse, and even suppress or disable that IADS means that its engagement ability can be seriously degraded or some parts of it may be even wiped out entirely.
AEA, and modern electronic warfare in general, is one of the mystical corners of aerial warfare that is often misunderstood and is cloaked in secrecy. While you can get some insight into the mission here, overall, Havoc is shrouded under a more opaque umbrella of security than its famed counterpart down the hallway.
Havoc isn’t an acronym — it’s a clear reference to what its operators can cause when effectively deploying the full suite of EA-18G Growler capabilities in a complex aerial battlespace. By their very nature, these AEA platforms have the ability to operate in a high-threat environment, tackling air defenses head-on that are out to stop them and their partnering forces, in their tracks.
NAWDC at Fallon is the center of excellence for U.S. Navy training and tactics development, with Havoc being a department within this large organization, and known officially as N10. Havoc has tracked the EA-18G’s path and growth in U.S. Navy service and will mark its tenth anniversary in 2021, with a decade that has been geared toward maintaining the Growler’s leading edge in the complexities of the AEA mission.
What does HAVOC do?
Havoc’s primary role lies in training Growler Tactics Instructors, or GTIs, that official NAWDC literature says “form the tactical engine” of the EA-18G community, to maximize the use of the aircraft’s sensors and weapons. In addition, it trains Intelligence Officers, which similarly receive the highest level of EA-18G tactical qualification that is recognized across Naval Aviation.
“Intel shops” are responsible for providing the latest data on threat systems, so the airborne operators and their “kit” know exactly how to deal with them. According to NAWDC: “The Growler brings the most advanced tactical electronic warfare capabilities to operational commanders, creating a tactical advantage for friendly air, land, and maritime forces by delaying, degrading, denying, or deceiving enemy kill chains.”
Captain Brett Stevenson, the commander of Havoc, leads an organization that is both catering for the present fight while also keeping a close eye on some big advances coming along in the future of the EA-18G. “The Growler Tactics Instructor course is run over a 14-week period, twice a year, typically for eight students at a time, and is mostly conducted at Fallon,” he explains. “We don’t “hard crew” here, the students go through individually, rather than as a dedicated pilot and Electronic Warfare Officer [EWO] team.”
“The course has three main phases, we have air-to-air with an electronic attack [EA] focus, air-to-ground EA, and our capstone exercise that comes at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, when we do a month alongside the U.S. Air Force Weapons School in its WSINT [Weapons School Integration Phase, “wizz-int”]. For this, we work closely with the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense [SEAD] F-16 “Vipers,” as well as on integration with fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s, as well as a range of joint non-kinetic capabilities to suppress enemy air defenses in a holistic, coordinated manner.”
In addition to the GTI course at Fallon, the Navy has a Growler Electronic Attack Weapons School (EAWS) at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, which is co-located with the type’s operational and training squadrons. This school was first established as the Weapons “Cage” of Attack Squadron VA-128, the “Golden Intruders,” in 1974 to provide refresher and advanced courses for Grumman A-6 Intruder ordnance personnel. This evolved into a course for weapons and advanced strike planning, including the addition of the EA-6B Prowler, the predecessor of the Growler.
Capt Stevenson says: “The Growler Weapons and Tactics Programs [GWTP] is the training continuum that all Growler aircrews progress through as they attain tactical qualifications of increasing skill and responsibility in effectively employing the Growler’s capabilities.”
“The GTI course consists of academic, simulator and live flight events both on the Fallon Range Training Complex [FRTC] and the Nevada Test and Training Range [NTTR],” Stevenson continues. “We put GTI candidates through a Ph.D.-level course of instruction focused on the precise execution of the latest Growler tactics, and how to integrate the platform’s capabilities with naval and joint forces. We focus on developing their instructor skills through a rigorous, structured debriefing process after each course event. This provides the basis for continual self-improvement, and gives our students the skills they will need to become expert instructors.”
“Graduates of the GTI course will become instructors at Havoc or EAWS. After those two-year instructor tours, they will then return to fleet squadrons as Training Officers, where they become the connective tissue between the tactics developed at Havoc, and fleet aircrew employing the full range of Growler capabilities,” Capt Stevenson explains.
The U.S. Navy retired its last EA-6B Prowlers in 2015 and has now consolidated its AEA effort within Carrier Air Wings, as well as in the joint expeditionary electronic attack squadrons, via the Growler. Comparing the two-seat EA-18G with its four-seat EA-6B predecessor, Capt Stevenson says workload distribution and crew coordination are far more important in the Growler. Regarding the overall AEA mission, he adds: “It’s as much about the ability to confuse and disrupt the adversary — the non-kinetic effects — as it is about the ability to conduct strikes.”
Modern data links and advanced avionics mean the EA-18G is more battlespace savvy than the EA-6B, able to receive huge swathes of data and then distribute it between appropriate platforms. Where the four-person Prowler cockpit relied on reactive crew coordination to get the most from the avionics — the three Electronic Countermeasures Officers (ECMOs) relied on a lot of comms and analog systems integration — the Growler crew works in a digital world where task division is more clearly assigned, and blended avionics afford a generally more efficient working environment.
“GTI candidates typically employ in a section (two-ship) or division (four-ship), but some of the more complex events at WSINT will include up to six Growlers, all synchronized in space and time to provide the kind of capacity we might expect to employ against a modern adversary. During a typical Large Force Exercise event, Growler aircrews use onboard sensors to quickly detect and locate threats, which are then neutralized with kinetic and non-kinetic effects to provide sanctuary for the strike package,” explains Capt Stevenson.
Stevenson says HAVOC has some crossover with Topgun, especially with the introduction of the F-35C Lightning II into the Carrier Air Wing (CVW). The two organizations have different, but complementary Subject Matter Expert (SME) qualifications. One area of crossover is suppression of enemy air defenses, better known as SEAD, a mission that includes a combination of non-kinetic and kinetic effects, which may include employing advanced anti-radiation missiles at enemy radars.
Growler crews also focus on battlespace dominance with an electronic attack bias, communications networking, and employment of the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM), which are the primary kinetic SEAD weapons for the Growler.
“Employment of live ordnance during integration exercises is rare, but GTI students do participate in a dedicated AGM-88 HARM missile shoot as part of the GTI course. This gives them the experience needed to effectively plan and safely execute similar missile shoot events during their fleet squadron Training Officer tours.”
As air defense networks have evolved and matured, the AEA mission has had to similarly adapt, employing both new technology and new tactics. The Navy is pushing hard on a raft of next-generation EA-18G capabilities that build upon the initial standard of aircraft.
Capt Stevenson says that some fundamental improvements that are coming down the pipe for the EA-18G are very much in line with the current thinking at Havoc. “The Next-Generation Jammer [NGJ] will be revolutionary,” he asserts. NGJ is a series of podded jamming systems that will herald a major step forward for the EA-18G. You can read more about the NGJ family of pods in this previous War Zone feature.
For the most part, the biggest advantages the Growler brings to the fight over the Prowler is air-to-air employment capabilities, along with improved maintainability. As a means of reducing risk on its entry into service, the Growler initially retained the Prowler’s external AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods, albeit with specific modifications to facilitate the transfer to the EA-18G, which you read about here.
The ALQ-99 jamming pods and the ALQ-218 Electronic Surveillance and Electronic Attack suite are actually carryovers from the Prowler, being the ALQ-218 was designed for the Growler, but integrated into the final capability upgrade to the EA-6B, known as ICAP III, to enhance the venerable jet’s capabilities and validate the system’s performance.
While the legacy ALQ-99 is a proven and capable jammer that has been able to adapt to new threats, it is now being replaced by the NGJ series of pods, beginning with the AN/ALQ-249(v)1 Next Generation Jammer Mid-band (NGJ-MB), which is under development by Raytheon. The first flight of NGJ-MB on an EA-18G occurred in August 2020, however, the project has faced a number of engineering challenges, details of which you can read here.
Testing of the second new low-band (LB) jamming pod is now underway. The Northrop Grumman Demonstration of Existing Technologies (DET) prototype of the NGJ-LB pod was revealed in September 2020 and is detailed in this War Zone article. A high band pod could also be developed to complete the transition from the legacy ALQ-99.
The Growler is also gearing up for the Northrop Grumman AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range (AARGM-ER), which is a significant upgrade on the AGM-88E AARGM. The Navy began development of the missile in 2018 and it too will soon be fielded by the EA-18G as it further enhances the type’s kinetic capabilities. You can read more about the AARGM-ER here.
Growler looks to the future
In addition to the external pods and weapons, the U.S. Navy is moving forward with a Block II variant of the Growler. This upgrade will provide the aircraft with a significantly enhanced electronic attack system, which includes the improved AN/ALQ-218(v)4 radio frequency receiver system, plus the AN/ALQ-227(v)2 Communication Countermeasures Set (CCS). It is also planned to build upon currently-funded features being added to the Block III F/A-18E/F, such as conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) that add 3,500 pounds of fuel — an especially important upgrade for the electronic warfare pod-lugging Growler — and new 10 x 19-inch wide-area displays in the cockpit. It’s an excellent example of how the Navy leverages commonality between the Growler and the Super Hornet.
A new open architecture processor and advanced networking will also enable the EA-18G to further prepare for the future battlespace. In September 2019, the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and Boeing demonstrated the ability for the Growler to act as a controller for autonomous Unmanned Air Systems (UASs). Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-23 “Salty Dogs” at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, flew a pair of EA-18Gs that simulated UASs, which were controlled from a third Growler in a series of four flights. This could pave the way for the Growler directing unmanned combat air vehicles and other advanced drones in the future. You can read all about these missions here.
The tests were part of the Navy Warfare Development Command’s annual fleet experiment (FLEX) exercises, and part of demonstrating how the EA-18G is moving ahead in line with cutting edge technologies for fielding in future conflicts. EA-18Gs also could find themselves launching and controlling swarms of smaller stand-in jammers and decoy drones in the future, as well.
The already complex AEA mission undertaken by the Growler is dramatically expanding as these new capabilities are added to its repertoire. How the Growler will operate alongside the U.S. Navy’s F-35C Lightning II stealth fighters, which have their own unique electronic warfare capabilities, is an important part of Havoc’s work. It means the school will work closely with the neighboring Topgun as it expands the inclusion of the F-35C in its syllabus. Read all about how the F-35C is changing Topgun in this recent feature of ours.
Stealthy combat aircraft often rely on AEA support in the most complex IADS environments to ensure they remain fully protected. “Growler aircrews provide the optimum combination of kinetic and non-kinetic effects for each supported platform or “Protected Entity” based on that platform’s unique capabilities,” explains Capt Stevenson. “During mission planning, Growler aircrews will determine the most effective method of support, and how that may evolve during a given mission. It’s a very dynamic process that requires split-second decision making to ensure that the survivability of the strike package is maximized.”
Part of Havoc’s work is to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for the Growler to operate as part of an integrated joint force and to maximize lethality for the CVW and joint forces in the most demanding and hostile environments. This involves bringing together a full spectrum of assets and capabilities to disable an IADS in an effective manner. These considerations underline why HAVOC has been closely involved with the development and fielding of the NGJ from the outset.
Looking ahead, Havoc will continue to play a critical role in training squadron-level Growler operators and elevating them to become the fleet’s electronic attack specialists. It’s part of the constant evolution of an important frontline asset in ensuring its operators have the know-how to efficiently employ a platform’s latest technologies, and how to combat the latest threats that could be faced in what is arguably one of combat aviation’s most challenging roles.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com