Tag: Electronic Warfare

Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024

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Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024
An Italian Air Force F-35B during a joint training mission with an Italian Navy F-35B. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

The Italian MoD is continuing the modernization of the military, with investments in many areas that will also sustain the national industry.

The Italian government published, during the summer, the new multiyear defense planning document (Documento Programmatico Pluriennale della Difesa) for 2022-2024, which illustrates the funding needed by the Italian military to sustain and modernize its forces. Many important investments can be found in the document, but let’s proceed in order.

The strategic situation is based, as last year, on a reference scenario, called the “extended Mediterranean” region, which is currently subject to many important geopolitical changes. Among the critical aspects of the region, the document mentions the Libyan situation, the tensions between coastal countries that are rearming their military forces, the disputes about sea boundaries and commercial routes. These challenges add up to the global situation, with COVID-19 and the new role of Russia and China becoming increasingly important.

The Italian Ministry of Defense is focused on maintaining a balanced military power, while also renovating and potentiating it with new capabilities. An important novelty in the last few years are the space and cyber domains, which are set to provide new space for innovation in the informational and decisional sectors.

The systemic shock caused by the dramatic evolution of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whose economic and social repercussions are noticeable in an international context already burdened by the echo of the pandemic and by multiple situations of unresolved conflict, will radically change the world order and European security that we have known so far, says the document.

The invasion brought back the attention to the importance of symmetrical conflicts against near peer adversaries, after decades of asymmetrical conflict against irregular forces, revealed a significant conventional, cyber and space threat, and even evoked again the nuclear threat. The return of war in Europe, which someone thought would accentuate the disagreements among the European countries, has instead determined the effect of cementing the cohesion of NATO and of raising the role of the European Union to an organization with a geopolitical value.

This is contrary to the expectations of Russia, which believed it could count on a disunited NATO and on a weak European Union unable to decide. Also, this was an eye-opener about the need for a strengthened military, after years of postponed investments which were needed to increase its deterrent value and to respect the commitments, undertaken in the NATO context, for the achievement of the threshold of 2% of GDP for the Defense budget.

In this perspective, the Defense minister Lorenzo Guerini outlined four fundamental strategic priorities: promote an appropriate positioning of Italy in the context of international security; give further impetus to the process of adapting the military instrument; fully exploit the potential that can be expressed by the Defense Industry; continue efforts in terms of policies suitable for addressing current and future challenges.

Let’s now talk about the programs in place to reach the objectives of this year’s Defense planning.

One of the main activities for the aerospace component of the Command, Control and Communications (C3) is the completion of the acquisition of the Gulfstream G550-based CAEW/BM&C capability, as well as a new Electronic Warfare capability. The program, known as P-MMMS (Piattaforma Multi-Missione, Multi- Sensore/Multi-Mission, Multi-Sensor Platform), is aimed at obtaining a modern asset that can be integrated in a net-centric C4ISTAR architecture and later adapted for multi-domain operations.

The resulting C6ISTAR-EW-enabled assets are the CAEW, Spydr and JAMMS aircraft that have been in the works for some years. As we reported last year, a number of “clean” G550 are being acquired to be converted at a later stage, like the one delivered earlier this year. These aircraft, that the document calls “green base JAMMS”, are scheduled to be converted in the Full Mission Capable CAEW and Electronic Combat variants. A contract for the conversion of two more CAEW aircraft might have already been signed.

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

An interesting piece of information possibly related to the P-MMMS program can be found under the Force Protection and Engagement Capability entry, which hints at the Electronic Combat variant of the aircraft possibly being the EC-37B Compass Call. In fact, the entry says: “Completion of the acquisition program for new aircraft equipped for and dedicated to Electronic Warfare operations (EC-37B)”.

As you may know already, the Compass Call system is an airborne tactical electronic attack weapon system installed on a heavily modified version of the C-130 Hercules, called EC-130H Compass Call. This system disrupts enemy command and control communications, radars, and navigation systems and limits adversary coordination, which is essential for enemy force management. Following the type’s retirement announced in 2014, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Compass Call Rehost program, which will move the current Compass Call systems from the EC-130H to the new EC-37B, based on the Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (CAEW) airframe.

Staying on the Electronic Warfare topic, the EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation) fleet is being expanded to a total of three aircraft, with two new ones in the RRP2 (Risk Reduction Phase 2) configuration being converted, together with the procurement of their ground segment and mission system. As we already reported, the EC-27J is a variant of the successful Leonardo C-27J Spartan military transport aircraft that has been heavily modified to perform EW missions: the aircraft carries an internal JEDI system that is coupled with a tail antenna to jam the frequency bands used to remotely operate IEDs and UAVs, in order to neutralize them and thus protect personnel on the ground around areas of interest.

The capabilities provided by the secretive EC-27J (whose official designation is YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series) are intended for the execution of convoy escort missions where it provides from the air an electromagnetic safety bubble. The aircraft was deployed to Erbil, Iraq, for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at national level). Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Speaking of the C-27J, the planning mentions the works for the completion of the MC-27J Praetorian program. The MC-27 is a special variant of the Spartan developed to provide support for the Special Forces of the Comando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS). Three C-27J that were already in service and the ItAF were converted to the Praetorian configuration with the addition of mission systems, C3ISR equipment and a palletized ATK GAU-23 30mm automatic cannon, the same used by the USAF AC-130J.

The Defense planning also includes the Spydr, mentioning the leasing of an aircraft equipped with specialized sensors as gap filler until a dedicated asset capable of assuring a full threat detection. This entry should refer to the two King Air 350s, one of which is a mission-equipped aircraft and the other one used for training purposes, leased from L3Harris. The aircraft is expected to be replaced by Gulfstream G550 aircraft with AISREW Mission Systems whose Foreign Military Sale was approved by the U.S. State Department in 2020.

Two aircraft will be provided by Italy to be converted, with L3Harris being the company contracted to carry out the modification. The “final” shape of the Italian AISREW aircraft should be similar to the one of the Australian MC-55 Peregrine, a SIGINT-configured G550 that L3Harris is providing to the Royal Australian Air Force and developed based on the experience of the EC-37 Compass Call II and other variants. It seems likely that all the modifications will be embedded at a later stage and the first airframe will be initially used for training purposes.

Italy is also continuing its participation in the Maritime Multi Mission Aircraft (M3A) program with other NATO allies, whose aim is to procure a dedicated aircraft for long range surveillance above and belove the sea surface. The M3A is expected to create a new generation of maritime surveillance aircraft that will eventually replace older platform currently in service.

The planning then moves to the information superiority section, with its Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance capabilities enabled by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The first to be mentioned is the EUROMALE program, the first unmanned aerial system (UAS) designed for flight in non-segregated airspace. The airframe is a twin-turboprop with pusher-propeller engines being developed by an Airbus, Leonardo and Dassault consortium. The system is set to provide a generational leap compared to current assets, integrating open architecture, high modularity and ease of evolution.

The other programs in the ISR section are related to the continuation of the modernization, potentiation and completion of the MQ-9 fleet, all listed under the Mid Life Modernization (MLM) and operational capabilities maintenance programs. One of the focuses of these programs is the payload, with the upgrade of sensors and command and control systems to the latest standards.

The document mentions: ”The aircraft will guarantee increased levels of safety and protection in convoys escort missions, providing a flexible defense capability that can be expressed from the air. It will also introduce a new protection option aimed both at forces on the ground and for the benefit of aerial assets during high intensity operations and, ultimately, to protect civilians in the event of a hybrid threat”. This explanation, which was also in last year’s document, was said to refer to the weaponization of the MQ-9.

The weapons were explicitly mentioned in a subsequent entry: “Modernization and renewal of the RPA fleet of the MLE category, the Predator platform, related weapons and interim solutions”. Actually, the U.S. State Department already approved in 2015 a possible FMS to Italy for the weaponization of the MQ-9, but there is no follow-on info about it. The FMS package included AGM-114R2 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 and GBU-49 laser guided bombs, GBU-38 JDAM and GBU-54 Laser JDAM bombs.

The Mid Life Modernization includes the procurement of two new MQ-9A Block 5 aircraft and a ground station, in addition to the upgrade of the other five to the same configuration. One of the new Predators (the name Reaper has not been adopted in Italy) will replace the one shot down in Libya in 2019. Also, the Italian MoD is looking for a new RPA that will replace the MQ-1C Predator A+.

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

While it didn’t provide any new details, this year’s document mentions again the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft and the wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. Tempest is intended to preserve the dominance of the air combat power by capitalizing the Italian and British participation to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. FCAS is described in the program summary as a system of systems, with an optionally unmanned aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced sensors and related technologies.

The UK, Italy and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2021 to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project in a major international endeavour. As of now, Sweden has not yet fully committed to join Tempest, but it is closely observing the process while working on the wider FCAS effort. Anyway, the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximizing their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

Japan is also joining the FCAS program, after a Letter of Arrangement signed earlier this year with the UK. The two countries will conduct cooperative research in fighter jet sensor technology, focusing on what has been called the “Jaguar” system. The “Jaguar” aims at the development of universal frequency sensor technology to allow aircraft to “better detect future threats from air, land and sea, quickly and accurately locating targets and denying surveillance technology operated by adversaries. Japan’s expected role in the FCAS effort has since expanded, including the JNAAM long-range air-to-air missile (which will benefit from the Meteor BVRAAM technology) and a possible merge of the indigenous F-X program with Tempest.

After the 6th gen, the document moves to the current 5th gen with the F-35 Lightning II. The MoD says the program is proceeding as planned for the first two tranches of aircraft, called Phase 1 and Phase 2a. Phase 1 satisfied the requirements for the acquisition of the first 28 aircraft, their engines, equipment, initial expenses and retrofit, together with logistical support until 2022 and the preparation of the national sites in Amendola, Ghedi and the Cavour aircraft carrier.

Now, the Phase 2a has been initiated thanks to a strategy that will avoid further delays in the program and savings which could amount up to one billion euros. This phase covers the procurement of 27 new aircraft, together with their engines and equipment, and the extension of the logistical support. This will allow for a full operational capability from 2030. Also, by the end of the year, the MoD will start the preliminary negotiation for Phase 2b, which will lead to the acquisition of a further 35 aircraft. The total expense expected until 2032 is of seven billion euros. Also, the revenues from the F-35 program on the national industries have reached, by the end of 2021, a total of € 5.17 billion.

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

The Defense planning moves on with the assets currently in service. The Eurofighter Typhoon program now mentions the development of next generation, advanced technology sensors to better promote the national industry in the transition towards the 6th generation. At the same time, the Tornado program is looking to the upgrade of the aircraft to solve obsolescence issues due to the aging technology and to extend the operational life until the planned phase-out date (which has not yet been officially decided).

The Italian Air Force will also work on the completion of its helicopter fleet for the Search And Rescue and Slow Mover Intercept missions. The first entry sees the completion of the acquisition of the HH-139 rescue helicopter, which is an interim solution for a medium helicopter. Earlier this year, the ItAF took delivery of the last HH-139B and the service will now move to the conversion of the HH-139A helicopters to the new B variant. At the same time, the HH-101 CSAR helicopter will be upgraded to the Mission Enhanced standard to better sustain operations in non-permissive environments.

Talking about support assets, this year’s planning confirms the intention of the Italian MoD to acquire two new KC-46 tankers and upgrade the current KC-767s to the same standard. Moreover, the initiation of a strategic transport program is mentioned, without providing further details.

The next topic covered by the planning is the training. The ItAF will strengthen the Operational Training Infrastructure (OTI), focusing on a high integration between live, virtual and constructive activities, while continuing to work with the T-345 and T-346 programs. The OTI program will develop a geo-federate, modular, resilient and secure open architecture, connecting flight simulators, simulation systems and C2 systems to create a common synthetic environment that will reproduce real, complex and highly variable operational environments. An integral part of this program is the modernization of the Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra (PISQ).

Important news are coming also for the helicopter training, with a new helicopter flight school being established in Viterbo, currently home of the Army’s flight school. The new school will exploit the ItAF’s expertise in this sector, with the aim of satisfying the requirement for a joint national training centre for all helicopter pilots, as well as satisfying the requirements for the equivalent civilian licenses and offering training to international partners. The ItAF is also leading the efforts for the new school on behalf of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

The current plan is based around a training area, an operational area (with maintenance, storage and helicopter recovery functions) and a logistic area. The school will employ the new AW169 Light Utility Helicopter to satisfy the requirements of the phase 3b of the training, exploiting the gradual replacement of the six legacy helicopter fleets with the new helicopter. The phase 3b training on the LUH will follow the phase 3a currently performed on the TH-500 helicopter, providing an advanced training phase between the initial 3a training and the helicopters assigned to the operational units.

The school will have a structure similar to the one for the jet pilots at Lecce-Galatina Air Base. In fact, the project is based around an Integrated Training System (ITS) which will include the LUH and the Ground Based Training System (GBTS). The GBTS will be in charge of the ground school, with an Academic Training System, Full Flight Simulators and Flight training Devices, advanced briefing and debriefing systems.

Obviously, the Army will continue to work on the LUH program and, after a first tranche of 17 helicopters approved in 2019, a new tranche of 33 helicopters has been approved. This new combat support helicopter, as we already reported, is not the only new entry in the Italian Army. In fact, the works are proceeding also on the new Leonardo AW249 NEES (Nuovo Elicottero da Esplorazione e Scorta / New Exploration and Escort Helicopter), which is in the middle of an extensive flight test campaign. The MoD expects to procure up to 48 attack helicopters, which will replace the AH-129D currently in service.

Last but not least, the Italian MoD is also working on a Next Generation Fast Helicopter (NGFH)/ Next Generation Rotorcraft (NGRC). Contacts have been established with the U.S. Army for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, with the Minister of Defense also visiting Bell’s facilities to see the V-280 Valor tilt-rotor and the B-360 Invictus reconnaissance helicopter.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

United State Air Force Released First Official Photos Of EC-37B After Visit At Davis-Monthan AFB

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United State Air Force Released First Official Photos Of EC-37B After Visit At Davis-Monthan AFB
An EC-37B Compass Call comes to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2022. Compass Call subdues air defenses by stopping the transmission of crucial details in between enemies, their tool systems, as well as control networks.(U.S. Air Force picture by Airman 1st Class Vaughn Weber)The airplane, slated to change the EC-130H Compass Call, made a short browse through to reveal to the 55th Electronic Combat Group the development with the program. The U.S. Air Force launched brand-new pictures of the brand-new EC-37B Compass Call as it quickly went to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on August 17, 2022. The browse through provided to the employees of the 55th Electronic Combat Group the chance to see up-close the airplane that will certainly change in a couple of years their aging EC-130Hs giving up turn much better efficiency and also brand-new capacities over the retiring airplane. The airplane, which got all outside adjustment, is still flying with its guide paint and also the noncombatant enrollment N591GA.

As you might understand currently, the Compass Call system is an air-borne tactical digital assault tool system mounted on a greatly customized variation of the C-130 Hercules, called EC-130H Compass Call. This system interferes with opponent command as well as control interactions, radars, and also navigating systems and also limitations foe control, which is crucial for opponent pressure administration.

The EC-130H flew for the very first time in 1981 and also was provided to the Air Force a year later on. The Compass Call is among the busiest possessions of the whole United States stock, which participated in every dispute where United States soldiers were involved in battle, and also is additionally lengthiest constantly released Air Force property, being released given that 2002 in Afghanistan. After 40 years, nevertheless, the EC-130H needs a substitute, with 5 airplane out of 14 currently retired.

Complying with the kind’s retired life revealed in 2014, the U.S. Air Force started the Compass Call Rehost program, which will certainly relocate the existing Compass Call systems from the EC-130H to the brand-new EC-37B, based upon the Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (CAEW) airframe. When it comes to the EC-130H, BAE Systems is the specialist for the Prime Mission Equipment (PME) and also L3 Communications is the service provider for airplane combination as well as depot upkeep.

The option of the G550 was the verdict of a collection of evaluations that led the Air Force to pick to rehost the existing Compass Call goal system onto an industrial acquired airplane, causing a sole-source agreement to L3 Communications and also Gulfstream in 2017. The G550 has actually boosted rate, endurance, and also prolonged stand-off array over the heritage EC-130H airplane, claims L3Harris, giving considerably boosted survivability, in addition to supplying enhanced stand-off jamming capacity as well as versatility to respond to innovative interactions and also radar risks.

An EC-37B Compass Call parks after its arrival at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2022. Compass Call interrupts adversary command as well as control interactions, radar, and also navigating systems to limit battlespace control.(U.S. Air Force image by Airman 1st Class Vaughn Weber )Ten EC-37Bs, the initial 3 of which are presently being customized in Savannah, Georgia, as well as Waco, Texas, are arranged to change the whole EC-130H fleet. It appears, nonetheless, that the order may be raised to 14 airplane, changing the EC-130H in a 1-to-1 proportion. The initial trip of the brand-new EC-37B happened on October 7, 2021, while the initial ground examination of the totally changed airplane outfitted with the Compass Call system are prepared for 2023. Air Combat Command prepares to field the initial 5 EC-37Bs in 2023. These initial 5 EC-37B airplane will certainly organize the present Baseline 3 variation of Compass Call, which will certainly be”hair transplanted”from the retired EC-130Hs. The continuing to be airplane are arranged to get the updated Baseline 4 alternative presently in advancement, which will apparently present a brand-new low-band jammer system. Among the innovations that ought to make it right into the Baseline 4 system is the Small Adaptive Bank of Electronic Resources( SABER)innovation by BAE Systems, which was effectively trip evaluated for the very first time in 2014. According to the declaration from BAE Systems, SABER is a significant technical development that will certainly enable the Compass Call tool system to change from equipment to software-based electro-magnetic range(EMS )war capacity. The SABER system is improved a collection of Software Defined Radios(SDRs)utilizing an open system design and also will certainly supply the foundation of the brand-new EC-37B’s os.

In this manner, the Compass Call can be upgraded without considerable physical reconfiguration and also allow the U.S. Air Force to quickly as well as proactively reply to arising adversary risksystems. About Stefano D’Urso Stefano D’Urso is an independent reporter and also factor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A grad in Industral Engineering he’s likewise researching to accomplish a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Digital Warfare, Loitering Munitions as well as OSINT methods put on the globe of existing problems as well as army procedures are amongst his locations of knowledge.

Leonardo’s BriteCloud Cleared To Begin Foreign Comparative Testing In The U.S.

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An artistic depiction of the BriteCloud 218 variant released by a F-16C Fighting Falcon. (Photo: Leonardo)

The Expendable Active Decoy will be tested on US F-16s after the recent tests on Italian Tornados and Danish F-16s.

The U.S. Air Force’s Seek Eagle Office has approved Leonardo’s BriteCloud 218 Expendable Active Decoy to be flown on Air National Guard F-16C Block 30 aircraft as part of the Defense Department’s Foreign Comparative Testing (FCT) program. The operational testing program, first announced in 2019, is expected to be completed this year, with possible procurement to follow.

As we reported in an in-depth story last year, BriteCloud is a battery powered, self-contained cartridge that provides an off-board jamming capability that can be dropped like the classic chaffs and flares, creating a large distance between the aircraft and the decoy so the missile and its shrapnel miss completely the aircraft. According to Leonardo, BriteCloud has the capability to defeat the majority of RF-guided surface-to-air and air-to-air threat systems, including the ones that rely on the “home-on-jam” guidance.

After BriteCloud is ejected, it starts to search for priority threats, collecting the incoming radar pulses and cross-referencing them against a pre-programmed threat library. Upon finding a match, BriteCloud’s on-board computer applies its advanced algorithms to simulate a “false target” so accurate that the threat system cannot detect the deception and distinguish it from the real aircraft.

“BriteCloud is substantially more effective than traditional countermeasures such as chaff decoys because its technology allows BriteCloud to tailor its powerful electronic ghost signal to the specific threat radar, allowing it to defeat modern, sophisticated threats,” says Wayne Smith, vice-president of sales for electronic warfare with Leonardo.

Leonardo is currently the only company which succeeded to sufficiently miniaturize the Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) technology to the point where it can be launched from a standard 55 mm chaff and flare dispenser (“the size of a drinks can”, as the company described it). With these characteristics, BriteCloud requires minimal platform integration as it just needs to be loaded in the chaff/flare dispensers.

Following the successful tests of the 55 mm BriteCloud round, called BriteCloud 55, Leonardo developed an even smaller variant called BriteCloud 218 which can fit the 2”x1”x8” US-made chaff/flare dispensers. The FCT tests will use the BriteCloud 218 round, which fits the standard AN/ALE-47 countermeasure dispensers installed on the F-16.

An exploded look of BriteCloud 55. (Photo: Leonardo)

The latest milestone for the program was announced at Singapore air show. In the same occasion, as geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region continue to build, Leonardo said in a press release it is in discussion with a number of operators internationally to upgrade the region’s more than 500 F-16 fighters with the BriteCloud 218 decoy without needing to modify the platform or perform expensive integration work. The company declined to name the nations involved.

A recent press release from Leonardo also mentioned that two Italian Air Force Tornados and a Royal Danish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon visited RAF Coningsby during October 2021 for trials with the BriteCloud EAD: “Leonardo and the UK Royal Air Force have successfully demonstrated new high-tech deception techniques using its drinks-can-sized BriteCloud countermeasure, in co-operative trials with the Italian and Royal Danish Air Forces.”

The Italian Air Force fired BriteCloud 55 rounds from Tornado IDS aircraft and the Royal Danish Air Force dispensed BriteCloud 218 rounds from an F-16 fighter at the RAF Donna Nook air weapons range in Lincolnshire. “The new techniques proved highly effective at the trials range and the positive results will be presented to other NATO nations in an operators’ forum”, Leonardo mentioned.

According to spotters arrived at RAF Coningsby to see the visiting aircraft, the Italian Tornado IDS aircraft were MM7036/6-06 and MM7023/6-63, assigned to the 6°Stormo at Ghedi Air Base. The Tornados used the radio callsign “Spera”, meaning they were being flown by aircrew from 311° Gruppo Volo of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV), the Italian Air Force’s flight test unit. The Royal Danish Air Force F-16AM taking part in the same trials was identified as E-598.

These tests also follow the integration of BriteCloud on the MQ-9A Reaper and MQ-9B Sky/SeaGuardian series UAVs. General Atomics’ MQ-9 became the first RPAS to employ BriteCloud, with a test campaign in late 2020 that saw the Reaper successfully releasing a number of inert decoys during carriage and release trials from the new Self-Protection Pod.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Let’s Talk About Next Generation Electronic Warfare Suite For The F-16 Recently Tested By Northrop Grumman

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The Northrop Grumman CRJ-700 test bed aircraft equipped with the Next Generation Electronic Warfare and APG-83 SABR systems at Exercise Northern Lightning. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

The new suite was tested on the company’s flying testbed in conjunction with the APG-83 SABR AESA radar during Exercise Northern Lightning.

Northrop Grumman recently announced that the new Next Generation Electronic Warfare (NGEW) system was tested for the first time joined the AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) at Exercise Northern Lightning, demonstrating the full interoperability of the two systems in a realistic and contested electromagnetic spectrum environment. The company used one of their flying testbeds, a CRJ-700 equipped with NGEW and a SABR radar inside an F-16’s nosecone.

“When an EW system and a radar are able to work together fully, as demonstrated with NGEW and SABR, pilots can take advantage of capability without compromise,” said James Conroy, vice president, navigation, targeting and survivability, Northrop Grumman. “With the radio frequency (RF) spectrum becoming increasingly contested, this critical set of capabilities will support the F-16 for many years to come.”

According to Northrop Grumman, NGEW and SABR demonstrated full pulse-to-pulse, multi-function interoperability in a contested operational environment. With SABR successfully engaging multiple air and ground targets, NGEW detected and identified a range of advanced threats, employing advanced jamming techniques capable of defeating those threats when required.

The company worked alongside the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, the Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force and the F-16 system program office to test the new EW suite, which includes a new Digital Radar Warning Receiver, state of the art antennas and processors, and a digital frequency memory internal jammer. “During Northern Lightning we gained valuable insight on NGEW capabilities and obtained over 170 test points against both air and ground emitters,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Graham, F-16 electronic warfare test director, OFP CTF.  “We are one step closer to installing the first NGEW suite on an Eglin F-16 in less than one year.”

Northern Lightning set the right environment to demonstrate NGEW’s compatibility with the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar while identifying jamming threats across the Radio Frequency spectrum. In fact, during the exercise, the two systems faced a high-density radio frequency environment generated by the Joint Threat Emitters of the Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center. These threat emitters allowed Northern Lightning participants to fly missions under conditions representative of near-peer electromagnetic spectrum environments.

NGEW leverages an open-systems, ultra-wideband architecture, providing the instantaneous bandwidth needed to defeat modern threats. As RF threats continue to proliferate, effective electronic warfare systems are urgently needed to keep pilots safe and ensure mission success. “There is a strong push to improve Electronic Protection for the F-16 against modern adversaries,” said Lt. Col. Graham. “NL21 allowed for both an RF dense environment while permitting targeted testing before, during, and after LFE fights.”

An F-16C equipped with Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod tests the infrared search and track technology during exercise Northern Lightning 21. (U.S. Space Force by Senior Airman Mira Roman)

The Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman in late 2020 for the development of NGEW, with the goal of equipping as many as 450 F-16s if the testing is successful. An interesting point added by Northrop Grumman is that the EW suite being developed for the Viper (as the F-16 is nicknamed by its crews) is part of a product line of electronic warfare capabilities that can be adapted to protect virtually any platform, which shares a common technology baseline with the already known AC/MC-130J Radio Frequency Countermeasures (RFCM).

Another interesting aspect pulse-to-pulse interoperability of NGEW with the F-16’s newly acquired APG-83 radar which has been declared fully operational with the Air National Guard in October 2020. While not better specified, this should mean that the two systems are interoperable without generating significant interferences and maybe, coupled together, the AESA radar and the new EW suite could provide some additional advanced capabilities that would not be available with a mechanical radar.

Exercise Northern Lightning was also the right occasion to introduce the latest F-16 software in a Large Force Exercise, “graduating” the F-16 Mission Modular Computer M7.3 which hosts the new software for the jet. The next step will be releasing the software to the Combat Air Forces where the F-16 fleet as a whole will receive an update in its avionics and weapons system with enhanced capabilities to improve air-to-air capabilities and targeting accuracy, enabling new combat capabilities.

“The F-16 is rapidly improving its combat capability to stay relevant in a near-peer fight and the dedication of the F-16 test community is evident in accelerating change to the CAF,” said Capt Michael Mclain, chief of standardization and evaluation at the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. The F-16 testing also saw the integration of Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod equipped with Infrared Search and Tracking System technology.

“We were able to achieve what usually takes three to six months of testing in a matter of weeks,” said Lt Col. Jeremy Castor, F-16 sensors program manager, OFP CTF. “This has all to do with the collaboration that took place between the Lockheed Martin team and the operators out in the field who would test the infrared search and track technology during every sortie then retract the data and re-program the pod to better equip the warfighter in our combat scenarios.”

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

A Deep Dive Into BriteCloud Advanced Expendable Active Decoy

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An artistic depiction of the BriteCloud 218 variant released by a F-16C Fighting Falcon. (Photo: Leonardo)

BriteCloud is the first expendable DRFM decoy that can be employed like standard chaffs and flares, differentiating from the more common towed decoys.

As the radar and missile technology evolves, so must the countermeasures needed to defeat them. One of the most recent and effective technologies used to counter these threats is the Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) technology, as we mentioned last year in our article about the digital evolution of Electronic Warfare (EW). DRFM is the technology behind Leonardo’s BriteCloud Expendable Active Decoy (EAD), the first countermeasure of this kind.

Today, military aircraft face a new highly complex threat environment because of all the new technologies that are being developed. Modern SAM (Surface to Air Missile) systems, which can be both highly mobile and highly maneuverable, can present a lethal threat if not adequately taken into consideration. Even older systems, which over time might also been retrofitted with modern electronics, can still put an aircraft in grave danger. The threat gets bigger if we also consider the integration of Electronic Counter-CounterMeasures (ECCM) in the newer systems, designed to defeat the countermeasures, like chaffs, flares and jammers, employed by an aircraft.

What is BriteCloud

BriteCloud is a battery powered, self-contained cartridge that provides an off-board jamming capability – hence the term “active” – that can be dropped like the classic chaffs and flares – hence the term “expendable” -, creating a large distance between the aircraft and the decoy so the missile and its shrapnel miss completely the aircraft. According to Leonardo, BriteCloud has the capability to defeat the majority of RF-guided surface-to-air and air-to-air threat systems, including the ones that rely on the “home-on-jam” guidance (when the missile targets the jamming signal, dangerous especially for aircraft equipped only with an internal or podded jammer).

After BriteCloud is eject, it starts to search for priority threats, collecting the incoming radar pulses and cross-referencing them against a pre-programmed threat library. Upon finding a match, BriteCloud’s on-board computer applies its advanced algorithms to simulate a “false target” so accurate that the threat system cannot detect the deception and distinguish it from the real aircraft. This happens because, as mentioned by Leonardo, the decoy is able provide both Doppler and range obscuration with range and velocity “gates” that confuse the ECCM systems.

BriteCloud is what is known as a “second generation” expendable active decoy, which differs from the first generation decoys, generically called also towed decoys, developed towards the end of the Cold War and reliant on a cable that connects them to the aircraft so they can keep the required distance and also receive data and power for the jamming signal. BriteCloud, the first second generation expendable active decoy to have been proven in live trials against advanced threats, is a project developed by Leonardo’s facilities in Luton (UK).

Leonardo is currently the only company which succeeded to sufficiently miniaturize the DRFM technology to the point where it can be launched from a standard 55 mm chaff and flare dispenser (“the size of a drinks can”, as the company described it). With these characteristics, BriteCloud requires minimal platform integration as it just needs to be loaded in the chaff/flare dispensers. Following the successful tests of the 55 mm BriteCloud round, called BriteCloud 55, Leonardo developed an even smaller variant called BriteCloud 218 which can fit the 2”x1”x8” US-made chaff/flare dispensers.

BriteCloud
Leonardo’s BriteCloud 55 round and, in the background, its 218 variant. (Photo: Leonardo)

Since there is no need for extensive integration works, the system presents a significantly lower acquisition and sustainment cost. BriteCloud has been extensively tested on various platforms including the Tornado, Typhoon, Gripen, F-16 Fighting Falcon and even the MQ-9 Reaper RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air System). Leonardo is currently in discussion with several countries to integrate BriteCloud also on other unspecified platforms. The Royal Air Force became the first to field this new countermeasure in 2018.

DRFM is considered the “gold standard” of protection against radar-guided surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Here is a brief definition of this technology that we published last year and that Leonardo’s experts confirmed as an accurate description of DRFM:

“DRFM systems provide a more complex approach to EW protection by modifying the radar signal to create false targets. This involves the reception of a radar signal that is digitized processed and altered in real time, and then converted back to analogue and retransmitted. The system has to avoid signal degradation and keep the altered signal coherent with the source of the original signal. DRFM is highly effective in jammers, for an instance. Described in simple terms, the system digitizes the received signal and stores a coherent copy in digital memory, replicating, adjusting and retransmitting it when needed. Since this is a coherent representation of the original signal, the adversary’s radar will not be able to distinguish it from other legitimate signals and will recognize it as a real target. DRFM can be used to create false range targets both behind (reactive jamming) and ahead of (predictive jamming) the asset that it’s protecting.”

BriteCloud is not the only application of Leonardo’s DRFM technology, as its “family” also includes the Compact Jamming System (CJS) and SPEAR EW. The CJS is mostly known for its most advanced application, the Terma Electronic Combat Integrated Pylons System (ECIPS) used by many European F-16 operators. This pylon allows F-16 users who want to equip their platforms with a persistent, high-powered, modern defensive jamming capability to avoid losing a weapons station, as ECIPS is essentially a modified F-16 wing pylon and thus retains its MAU-12 bomb rack. Previously, the only way to install an external jammer was by using a podded solution, like the ALQ-131, usually found on the centerline station. The installation of CJS does not require further modifications as it is fully integrated in the already operational baseline ECIPS/ECIPS+.

The difference with BriteCloud is that it is an expendable countermeasure designed for a standard chaff/flare dispenser and this provides a key benefit as by dropping away, BriteCloud creates a large miss distance between itself and the aircraft and solves the challenge of the ‘home-on-jam’ capabilities that many modern missiles employ, as we already mentioned. Even if it has less power than a traditional on-board jammer, the power on-board the BriteCloud round is more-than sufficient to protect the aircraft from an incoming missile, lasting for a set amount of time to offer protection as it falls away from the aircraft. Leonardo noted also that BriteCloud can be used by itself as an RF protection capability as well as a complement to on-board jamming capabilities like an On-Board-Jammer such as the ECIPS/CJS or a Towed Radar Decoy (TRD).

SPEAR EW is the fruit of a new collaboration with MBDA to integrate Leonardo’s miniaturised DRFM technology into a SPEAR weapon system, allowing it to act as a stand-in jammer for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD)/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) missions. As we reported earlier this year, the RAF already selected the standard SPEAR 3 as the primary air-to-ground weapon for British F-35s. The new variant will act as a significant force multiplier and greatly increase the survivability of aircraft.

Some history background

BriteCloud was first announced in 2013 by Selex ES, one of the companies that made up the larger Finmeccanica group (before it was later renamed Leonardo in 2017) as the technological successor of older systems like the Towed Radar Decoys (TRD). The concept for BriteCloud emerged from the company’s close working relationship with UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and the Royal Air Force, which expressed the need for a sophisticated jamming capability in a standard expendable format.

Just a year later, in 2014, BriteCloud was first tested with an unspecified fighter aircraft releasing fully functional decoys while being tracked by a ground-based fire-control radar. The decoy performed as expected, breaking the radar lock on the aircraft and “forcing” the radar to follow the decoy until it impacted the ground. In 2015, Saab was the first to offer BriteCloud as an option on its aircraft, following the successful testing on the Gripen which saw the aircraft performing three flights and three releases of the new decoy in Sweden.

During the same year, the RAF 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron carried out its initial evaluation of BriteCloud in the USA, dropping an unspecified number of fully functional decoys launched from a Tornado GR4 as it was tracked by ground-based advanced RF threat systems. The test proved the maturity of BriteCloud’s DRFM technology against the modern threats that could be encountered by pilots today and prompted the UK Ministry of Defence to purchase in 2016 a significant number of the decoys to allow the RAF to further evaluate BriteCloud’s protective effect with its fleet of Tornado jets and develop a “concept of operations” (CONOPS) for the technology.

A BriteCloud infographic provided by the UK Defence Equipment & Support. (Photo: UK MoD)

In 2017, the RAF established the new Rapid Capability Office (RCO), with Leonardo as one of the partners, and BriteCloud became the first joint project aimed at further developing the DRFM technology while planning also a new “third generation” EAD. The RCO, Leonardo and the RAF worked then through a new test campaign in the USA which resulted in the go-ahead for operational service of BriteCloud on the Tornado GR4 in 2018.

In the meanwhile, the BriteCloud 218 variant was tested for the first time on a Royal Danish Air Force F-16A-MLU Fighting Falcon. As already mentioned, BriteCloud 218 fitted directly into the F-16’s standard AN/ALE-47 Airborne Countermeasures Dispenser System without the need for integration work. During the test, the Viper deployed the decoy after it was locked-onto by a real radar-guided surface to air missile targeting system, allowing Leonardo to collect essential performance data needed to complete the adaptation of the technology in the 2”x1”x8” format, which is about half the size of the original BriteCloud 55.

Obviously, transport aircraft and helicopters are also threatened by modern radars and missiles, so Leonardo announced in 2019 the development of a more powerful decoy called BriteCloud 55-T. The decoy still has the same dimensions of BriteCloud 55 but, because aircraft like the C-27J Spartan, the C-130 Hercules and the A400M have a larger Radar Cross Section (RCS), a higher power output was needed to create a larger false target which would lure the threats away. This time BriteCloud won’t have a dedicated 2”x1”x8” variant, but it will simply use an adapter magazine to deploy the round 55 mm decoy from square dispensers. BriteCloud 55-T is now near to completion of development and final preparation for production, according to Leonardo.

During the same year, as we reported here at The Aviationist, the Tornado GR4 was retired, so the RAF started working to certify BriteCloud 55 also on the Typhoon FGR4 as part of the new capabilities of Project Centurion. The testing was done once again by the 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron, which released 33 BriteCloud rounds against a range of representative threats.

New interests and applications

As you might expect, such an advanced technology gathered a lot of interest even outside of Europe. The BriteCloud system, in fact, got the attention also of the United States Department of Defense, which has selected the decoy to be evaluated under the US Foreign Comparative Testing (FCT) programme. The FCT is focused on finding, evaluating and eventually fielding important products and technologies produced by US allies that satisfy the needed requirements more quickly and economically that US-made ones.

The BriteCloud FCT will be performed by the Air National Guard (ANG), which will evaluate the BriteCloud 218 round on the F-16C. The decoy will be tested in a variety of challenging scenarios to provide a high level of confidence in the performance of the system and to demonstrate the ability to enhance F-16 survivability in modern scenarios. BriteCloud might end up replacing or complementing the AN/ALE-50 “Little Buddy” Towed Decoy System currently used by the Vipers.

A new application for this miniaturized technology comes from the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) world which, due to their limited dimensions, require compact and light-weight systems. Because of these restrictions, UAV were never equipped with defensive systems. However, the increasing presence of UAVs in conflict areas, even when advanced air defences are present, highlighted a growing need to protect the high-value unmanned aircraft from modern radar-guided threats as they carry out their valuable missions.

An exploded look of BriteCloud 55. (Photo: Leonardo)

Because of this, as we already reported, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems developed in 2020 the new Self-Protection Pod for the MQ-9 Reaper RPAS, equipped with the AN/ALR-69A(V) RWR, AN/AAQ-45 Distributed Aperture Infrared Countermeasure (DAIRCM) System and AN/ALE-47 Countermeasures Dispenser System. Among the countermeasures that were loaded in the ALE-47 there was BriteCloud 218.

The MQ-9 became the first RPAS to employ EADs like BriteCloud, with a test campaign that saw the Reaper releasing a number of inert decoys during carriage and release trials, which are designed to ensure that the decoy can be dispensed safely. Further tests with live rounds are being discussed to demonstrate BriteCloud’s effectiveness with the MQ-9 before the Self-Protection Pod is eventually fielded. Should BriteCloud pass the FCT successfully as expected by the company, the decoy would be open for acquisition across the US Armed Forces and it could be an option for operational US Reaper drones.

The Reaper, however, won’t be the first RPAS to deploy live EADs, as in early 2021 the German Armed Forces successfully released live BriteCloud 218 decoys from an Airbus RPATS (Remotely Piloted Air Target System) test platform. The decoy allowed the RPATS to evade Semi-Active Radar Homing (SARH) missiles during what Leonardo understands was a live fire event. The German trial marked also the first time BriteCloud has been launched from an RPATS platform specifically.

Some unconfirmed rumors reported that BriteCloud could have been eyed for integration on the F-35 Lightning II. While the company could not confirm as it is not aware of these reports, they stated that the integration is possible on any aircraft which can accommodate 55mm or 2x1x8 inch expendables, with no further aircraft modification required. Details about the F-35’s expendable countermeasures are classified, however the few unclassified details mention that the aircraft should be able to carry both 1x1x8 inch and 2x1x8 inch expendables, which opens to the possibility of BriteCloud 218 evaluated in the future on the 5th gen aircraft, should the requirement arise.

In the meanwhile, Leonardo is still working to improve BriteCloud, as the company has plans to allow in-flight pre-ejection reprogramming of BriteCloud for the threat that it is about to face via a smart interface, once this capability becomes operationally available in frontline chaff/flare dispensers.

The Aviationist would like to thank Leonardo’s spokesperson John Stevenson and the company’s team of experts for the help provided in the preparation of this article, while making sure also that it would not compromise sensitive information that would preclude the safety of the aircraft and crews employing this advanced technology.

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

The EC-27J JEDI EW Aircraft Achieves 5,000 Flight Hours Fighting Daesh In The Electromagnetic Spectrum

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Some images of the EC-27J JEDI operating as part of the Task Group Albatros. (All images credit: Italian Air Force)

The little known EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation) aircraft is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).

The EC-27J JEDI is a variant of the successful Leonardo C-27J Spartan military transport aircraft that has been heavily modified to perform Electronic Warfare missions: the aircraft carries an internal JEDI system that is coupled with a tail antenna to to jam the frequency bands used to remotely operate IEDs and UAVs, in order to neutralize them and thus protect personnel on the ground around areas of interest.

As already explained when the first details about the secretive aircraft (whose official designation is YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series) were disclosed by the Italian Air Force on the 2021 calendar, at least two C-27J aircraft have been converted to the EC-27J variant, with one deployed to Erbil, Iraq, for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at national level), established on Oct. 17, 2014.

The JEDI system has been completely designed by the ReSTOGE (Reparto Supporto Tecnico Operativo Guerra Elettronica – Electronic Warfare Technical Support Department), based at Pratica di Mare airbase. This unit is responsible for compiling, updating and managing the EW (Electronic Warfare) and self-protection libraries of all the Italian Air Force aircraft. The JEDI package can be installed on standard NATO pallets so as to quickly reconfigure the capability by means of a “roll-on and roll off” procedure.

A close up image of the EC-27J JEDI of the 46^ Brigata Aerea from Pisa deployed in Iraq.

In Iraq, the JEDI operates as part of Task Group “Albatros”, a team made by personnel from the ReSTOGE and the 46^ Brigata Aerea (Air Brigade) that oversees the whole Italian Air Force C-27J and C-130J fleet at Pisa airport. The Task Group has moved to Erbil from Kuwait, where it was initially based, in December 2017. The unit has recently celebrated the achievement of 5,000 flight hours (which equals to 210 days of uninterrupted coverage) flown with the EC-27J JEDI over Iraq since Aug. 10, 2016. Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

The Italian Air Force EC-27J sitting on the apron at sunset. Barely visible is the peculiar tail antenna.

Italian Air Force F-35s Carry Out SEAD and DEAD Training During Exercise Lightning 2020

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One of the F-35s deployed to Rivolto takes off for a mission. (All images: Claudio Tramontin)

During the Exercise, four Italian F-35 Lightning II have carried out missions in the Polygone range and trained with the Italian SIRIUS Surface Based Air Defence (SBAD).

From Oct. 19, four F-35A aircraft, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), based at Amendola Air Base deployed to Rivolto Air Base, in northeastern Italy, to take part in Exercise Lightning 2020.

As done in June 2018 during the so-called “Operation Lightning”, for two weeks, the 5th generation aircraft have flown several missions from Rivolto (also home of the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori display team) to the “Polygone”, located in Germany, near the border with France, to undertake specific training against simulated threats inside the Electronic Warfare range. But the deployment to the base in northeastern Italy provided also an opportunity for the Italian 5th generation pilot to train with the Italian SBAD systems, based in Rivolto and operated by the 2nd Stormo. The latter, is the reference unit for the missile air defense system within the Italian Air Force also responsible of the training and operational readiness of all the personnel in the missile sector of the Italian Air Force.

According to the Italian Air Force, the F-35s carried out multiple simulated SEAD (Suppression Enemy Air Defenses) and DEAD (Destruction Enemy Air Defenses) sorties against the new SIRIUS, that replaced the previous SPADA missile systems, in what the service calls a realistic EW (Electronic Warfare) scenario. Although no additional detail about the mission profiles flown by the Italian stealth jets has been released, the training activity provides an opportunity to recap what’s the current status of the F-35’s capability when it deals with SEAD and DEAD role, that the aircraft will take over in the next decade or so from the Tornado ECR in Italy, and from the F-16 in the U.S.

F-35’s SEAD/DEAD role

It’s not only a matter of syntax, there are substantial differences between a SEAD and a DEAD mission, with the latter aiming at destroying the whole system. For instance, the AGM-88, the type of missile used by the Tornado and Fighting Falcon aircraft, can prevent the employment of a defense system by destroying its radar. The damage on the antenna temporarily denies the use but does not destroy the whole system: if a replacement antenna is available, the whole site becomes operational again in some (usually, short) time. In previous conflicts, the mere presence of assets capable of firing HARM missiles dissuaded the SAM (Surface to Air Missile) sites to turn on their radars. On the other side, a DEAD mission sees the asset use stand-off weapons to destroy the enemy system more or less once and for all.

One of the F-35s of the 13° Gruppo about to land at Rivolto AB.

The F-35 is said to have the ability to locate and track enemy forces, jam radio frequencies and disrupt attacks from stand-off distance. However, it still lacks the integration of a missile for SEAD missions.

While the Block 3F already provided the ability to use, among the other stand-off weapons, also the GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs), at the moment, the AARGM-ER, the missile that will replace the AGM-88 and that the F-35A will be able to carry inside the weapons bay, is at least two or three years away. So, the aircraft’s SEAD capability is mostly reliant on the F-35’s AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar with sophisticated electronic attack capabilities, including false targets, network attack, advanced jamming and algorithm-packed data streams.

“This system allows the F-35 to reach well-defended targets and suppress enemy radars that threaten the F-35. In addition, the ASQ-239 system provides fully integrated radar warning, targeting support, and self-protection, to detect and defeat surface and airborne threats. While F-35 is capable of stand-off jamming for other aircraft — providing 10 times the effective radiated power of any legacy fighter — F-35s can also operate in closer proximity to the threat (‘stand-in’) to provide jamming power many multiples that of any legacy fighter,” says Lockheed.

Such capability is still somewhat limited, though.

In June this year, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin a $26.7 million contract to improve its SEAD/DEAD capability. The enhancement should be delivered as a retrofit design, applied to both U.S. and foreign F-35s in Lots 14 and 15, and completed by August 2022.

F-35A of the 13th Squadrons takes off from Rivolto during Exercise Lightning 2020.

Electronic Warfare ranges

The activity carried out during Exercise Lightning 2020 came immediately after the 13° Gruppo had successfully completed another deployment to Decimomannu Air Base, Sardinia, that marked also the first deployment to the Air Weapons Training Installation (AWTI) for the first Italian Air Force F-35B.

As we reported during the training campaign at the AWTI, local spotters and photographers noticed the aircraft flying at night inside the PISQ (Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra – Salto di Quirra Joint Range), the EW (range located in central eastern Sardinia, just a few minutes flight time distance from Decimomannu. This is what the former commander of the 155th Gruppo ETS, operating the Tornado ECR in SEAD/DEAD role told us about the differences between the PISQ and Polygone ranges in an interview back in 2017:

“We perform training activities aimed at delivering weapons; air-to-air missions inside the ACMI (Air Combat Maneuvering Installation) range to practice evading aerial threats, and night activity with the NVGs inside the PISQ range. In the latter case, we exploit the light conditions we find inside the EW range, that are far better than those that we can find flying over the Pianura Padana [Plain of the Po] were the light pollution creates visual conditions that are not optimal for the use of night vision goggles. The PISQ is really “dark” and this helps up preparing night SEAD scenarios perfectly tailored to our needs. The basic training for all the aircrews that are assigned to the squadron (and until they achieve the Combat Readiness status) as well as pilots and NAVs who need to keep their currencies, takes place at the Polygone. This range offers a lot in terms of available threats, including real and simulated air defense systems, and provides an immediate feedback on the effectiveness of the used tactics. Although complete, the type of scenarios the Polygone offers is quite basic, in terms of complexity, so we carry out the most advanced part of our training during multinational exercises (such as those in Israel or the Red Flag in the US), especially those drills that have a particular focus on EW. That said, we deploy to Deci for that niche training (night SEAD with NVGs) that would be difficult to arrange and perform abroad. Besides flying in the EW ranges we carry out joint training missions with the Italian Army and Navy as well as the Air Force’s own Spada anti-aircraft systems.” 

F-35A 32-10 recovering into Rivolto. Note the old coating that presented very evident panel lines which were painted a lighter gray than the rest of the aircraft, resulting in the characteristic saw tooth panel lines above and on the sides of the fuselage.

The Amazing Growler Ball 2020 Video Teases An EA-18G Cyber Attack Capability That Is Yet To Come

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An U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler fighter jet assigned to VAQ-129 Vikings at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, in Oak Harbor, Washington, takes off from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Nov. 21, 2019. VAQ-129 is a non-deploying shore squadron that provides continuing education for Aviators and Naval Flight Officers who have been to the fleet. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie)

As our readers know very well, the “Ball” series (“Hornet Ball”, “Rhino Ball”, “Strike Fighter Ball” and “Growler Ball”) is a very well known yearly compilation of the best videos filmed during the previous 365 days by U.S. Navy pilots and WSOs (Weapons Systems Officers) of “legacy” F/A-18A-D Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets (and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters), as well as EA-18G Growlers.

Actually, not only does “Growler Ball” feature the US Navy’s VAQ squadrons equipped with the Electronic Warfare/Attack variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet that replaced the EA-6B Prowlers in U.S. Navy service (i.e. the VAQ-129 Vikings; VAQ-130 Zappers; VAQ-131 Lancers; VAQ-132 Scorpions; VAQ-133 Wizards; VAQ-134 Garudas: VAQ-135 Black Ravens; VAQ-136 Gauntlets; VAQ-137 Rooks; VAQ-138 Yellowjackets;  VAQ-139 Cougars; VAQ-140 Patriots; VAQ-141 Shadowhawks; VAQ-142 Gray Wolves), but it also collects contributions from the U.S. Air Force’s 390th Electronic Combat Squadron (a geographically separated U.S. Air Force unit of Mountain Home Air Force Base, working out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, where USAF pilots assigned to Navy expeditionary EA-18G squadrons operate) as well as the No. 6 Squadron in the Royal Australian Air Force.

This year’s Growler Ball features the usual stunning footage: day and night cockpit scenes, launching and recovering from aircraft carriers, flying ultra-low level, firing AGM-88 HARM missiles, refueling from “buddy” Super Hornets and from U.S. Air Force KC-135s, dogfights and trap landings (in poor visibility). All filmed with GoPros and 360° stabilized cameras.

However, there is at least one additional detail that makes Growler Ball 2020 interesting, at least to me.

At the 05:02 mark, you can see the MRAD (Master RADIATION) light up, then what is supposed to be the effect of jamming on both the camera and the target, a computer system, that consequently, crashes.

The fictional system crash was probably included in Growler Ball just because it gave an immediate, visual, idea of the devastating effects of a jamming attack, however its cameo is at least worth of remark considered that the supposed Cyber capabilities of the EA-18G have been in the talks for more than a decade.

Let’s have a look at it is once again:

Let me say it again: the scene is not real, but fits with the rest of the video quite well. The only real part is when the MRAD light becomes green, means that the pods are active. The rest was just attached to the footage to showcase the outcome of the attack. By the way, this is not even the first time some Growler footage features the MRAD light and its effects:

That being said, all the sources we have inquired about the eventual ability of the Growler to “hack” or inject malware into enemy network seem to confirm that this is not a current capability.

In the past, U.S. Air Force EC-130H Compass Call aircraft have been involved in demos attacking networks from the air, a kind of mission that is far from new. In 2007, the success of Israeli Air Force’s Operation Orchard against a Syrian nuclear installation was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems. Although the details surrounding this capability are a bit fuzzy, the F-35 AESA radar could be able to do the same thing.

We have also reached out to NAVAIR to have an update on the EA-18G Growler’s Cyber Attack capabilities.

“Boeing is currently developing the Block II Growler, which will feature the Advanced Cockpit System of the Block III Super Hornet as well as improved sensors and upgraded electronic attack systems; however, those requirements are still in development, so we cannot provide further details at this time,” F/A-18 & EA-18G Program Office (PMA-265) explained us in an email.

Indeed, Boeing plans to improve the Growler’s electronic attack sensors and it is considering enhancements to Northrop Grumman’s ALQ-218 sensor system, which is used by the Growler for radar warning, electronic support measures and electronic intelligence, DefenseNews reported last year.

Although not officially confirmed, the Cyber Attack capabilities will probably be available in the future, with the Block II upgrade and the NGJ (Next Generation Jamming) pods.

The EA-18G is equipped with an airborne electronic attack (AEA) avionics suite that has evolved from the EA-6B’s Improved Capability III (ICAP III) AEA system. The EA-18G carries AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods, which are to be replaced by Next Generation Jammer jamming pods we have covered in detail in some recent articles.

The Navy states that “the EA-18G’s electronic attack upgrades meet or exceed EA-6B Airborne… Electronic Attack capability to detect, identify, locate and suppress hostile [electromagnetic] emitters; provide enhanced connectivity to National, Theater and strike assets; and provide organic precision emitter targeting for employment of onboard suppression weapons to fulfill operational requirements.”

In an article titled “A look at the US Navy’s Next Generation Jammer” published in 2018, dealing with the Cyber Warfare capabilities of the new pod, Dr Gareth Evans wrote:

The NGJ reportedly goes beyond traditional jamming too, adding signals intelligence and a communications hub capability to the more usual EW and radar tasks for the AESA array.

There have also been some reports that the system has the potential ability to launch a cyber-attack, involving inserting rogue data packets into enemy systems in a so-called “network invasion.” Such an attack is rumoured to have played a part in the 2007 Israeli ‘Operation Orchard’ raid on a nuclear plant near the eastern Syrian city of Dir A-Zur, in which BAE’s ‘Suter’ airborne network attack system was said to have shut down Syria’s Russian-made air defences.

The US Navy alluded to its interest in the idea in its 2015 ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower’, adding ‘all-domain access’ to the traditional four functions of the fleet, and according anti-access/area denial threats almost the same priority as nuclear deterrence. It would hardly come as a big surprise, then, if the reports of the new system’s additional cyber offensive capability were ultimately to turn out to be true.

Other articles, published even before 2018, mentioned the “Suter-esque” cyber attack capability to complement the EW attack capabilities of the Growler as well as its weapons giving U.S. military planners three SEAD options: jamming, bombing, and hacking.

Therefore, while the Cyber Attack is probably something coming with the NGJ pods, considered my background as a Computer Engineer specialized in Cyber Security, I’d be curious to understand a bit more about it:

is the Growler supposed to brigde the air gap and make the target network reachable even though it was supposed to be closed acting like a flying gateway? Or will the EA-18G dispense swarm of drones which, either autonomously or guided by a manned aircraft (in a loyal wingman scenario), will carry a malware designed to attack a specific target – a cyber weapon like the infamous Stuxnet, the virus that targeted the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) control systems that manage pipelines, nuclear plants and various utility and manufacturing equipment – clse to the enemy network and systems?

Whatever, while we don’t know exactly when and to what extent the EA-18G will be able to launch a Cyber Attack or support it, it’s safe to say that the mere fact that this cyber capability is being developed (and probably, soon, implemented too) just confirms what we have been saying for quite some time: drones, AI (Artificial Intelligence), new cyber capabilities (and threats) are already changing the way air forces are preparing to fight future wars.