Air Force prepares to restart B-52 jammer programme

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The US Air Force is expected to take a significant step forward this month as it attempts to revive an effort to field an airborne electronic attack aircraft in the next decade.

Requirements officials have quietly constructed a funding plan within the air force's internal six-year spending plan that would allow the service to begin testing high-tech electronic warfare components that could one day be installed on a portion of the Boeing B-52 bomber fleet.

b-52 refuel 
 © USAF

If the core component jammer (CCJ) wins approval from senior USAF leaders in the programme objective memorandum and then eventually gets congressional backing, a demonstration of the technology could take place by fiscal year 2012, says Col Bob Schwarze, the air force's chief of EW and cyber warfare requirements.

Also this month, the air force is expected to award several contracts for separate EW technology maturation research and development work, which will be directly applied to the jammer programme.

"We are looking at trying to get back into the stand-off jamming business with airborne electronic attack," says Schwarze.

Air force EW officials have rescoped the CCJ programme, bringing it more into line with five-year-old plans to equip the venerable Stratofortress bomber with a stand-off jamming capability.

Stand-off jamming is aimed at the enemy's low-band, early-warning radars. It enables attack jets and other aircraft to enter that airspace undetected and take out surface-to-air missiles sites and other threats.

Adding highly advanced EW capabilities to the bomber would enhance the air force's initial strike package at the onset of conflict.

Theatre Air Campaign

If equipped with the stand-off jamming capability, the EB-52 would be integrated into a theatre air campaign along with other first-strike aircraft, such as the stealthy fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. EW capability would enable the Stratofortress to launch kinetic strikes with cruise missiles or GPS-guided smart bombs while engaging in offensive airborne electronic attack.

f-22 aesa
 © USAF

The distance at which the EB-52 would be able to kill an enemy's radar systems is classified, but both the original stand-off jammer and CCJ ranges are the same, according to USAF EW officials.

An EW officer would control the wingtip-mounted sensors from inside the EB-52 and the bomber would not lose any weapons-carrying capability if the jamming instruments were installed.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to lower the programme's price tag, the USAF plans to equip only a portion of its Stratofortress fleet. The previous effort called for rewiring most of the active B-52s to operate the jamming pods, while buying enough pods to equip a small fraction of the fleet.

Similarly, the exact number of bombers to receive CCJ modifications has not yet been determined, say EW officials. The CCJ will have a "more tailored" frequency range than the original design and will specifically target low-band acquisition radars.

The air force's original stand-off jammer could target a broader range of threats, too, say officials. The receiver capability on the CCJ will also be tweaked. The air force began flying nuclear-attack-capable B-52s in 1952. In recent years, the USAF has begun retiring the oldest versions of the bomber, but more than 70 1960s-era H-model aircraft remain in its active inventory and played major roles at the onset of US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legacy aircraft has been equipped with 21st century technology and has evolved from dropping so-called "dumb bombs" to deploying precision-guided smart munitions. The massive aircraft have even been outfitted with the same advanced targeting pods used on Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles and Lockheed Martin F-16 Falcons. In the past few months, there has been talk of US Strategic Command operating a B-52 rotation nuclear squadron.

But the EW system on the Buff - as the bomber is called - is so dated, some parts still contain vacuum tubes. Despite this, the aircraft is projected to be structurally sound until 2040, according to industry officials.

A 1999 USAF study said an airborne electronic attack "system of systems" would be needed to augment and eventually replace the US Navy's and US Marine Corps' EA-6B Prowler aircraft.

The overall concept envisaged the B-52 operating in the stand-off jamming role and performing a battle management function. The escort jamming role would be taken by the navy's Boeing EA-18G Growlers.

Meanwhile, stealthy aircraft, such as Lockheed's F-22 and F-35 fighters equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, would perform the "stand-in jamming" role.

Officials first mentioned the B-52 stand-off jammer as the centre of the EW strike package in June 2002. Almost two years later, in April 2004, the USAF submitted its "system of systems" transition plan to Congress, which led to a capabilities-based assessment and the eventual approval of the US Department of Defense's Joint Requirements Oversight Council in November of that year.

But in December 2005, the outgoing USAF chief of staff, Gen T Michael Moseley, scrapped the service's previous attempt to field an AEA aircraft because its price tag was approaching $7 billion due to a plethora of requirements piled onto the original plans.

The CCJ concept was officially reborn almost eight months later, in July 2006. But the delay in fielding a new platform means the air force and navy face a gap in airborne electronic-jamming capability between 2012 and 2015 - a mission now performed by the EA-6B.

Meanwhile, the USAF aims to overcome the capability gap risk by using the self-protection systems on legacy jets - such as F-15s and F-16s - and through other assets, including jamming versions of the Raytheon-built miniature air-launched decoy. These MALD-Js are one piece of the system-of-systems concept.

Schwarze says this will shrink the 2012 capabilities gap, adding: "It will not eliminate it, we know that. That's why we're trying to do these other things." Those other things include upgrades to legacy aircraft electronic warfare systems.

The navy plans to replace its Prowlers - now operated by the USAF in Afghanistan - with the EA-18G Growler, a variant of the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, but the air force has no plans to buy those advanced jets.

ea-18g growler
 © USAF

Ever since the stand-off jammer programme was cancelled, talk of giving the B-52 an airborne electronic attack capability remained a hot topic among USAF top brass. The characteristics and size of the B-52 make it an attractive platform to fill the service's future stand-off jamming void, said Air Combat Command chief Gen John Corley in March.

Value and Merit

Corley says the B-52 is potentially a platform that has "value and merit" because of its large size, high power supply, amount of space and cooling capabilities.

Schwarze echoes Corley's view, noting that much of the infrastructure is already in place to support a jamming version of the B-52. But this time around, the USAF will scale down the B-52 jammer effort significantly from the "mission creep" that scuppered the previous effort.

The CCJ programme will be much smaller and along the lines of the original stand-off jammer requirements at a fraction of the cost, says Schwarze. "In today's fiscally constrained environment, it's really tough to sign on to a couple-of-billion-dollar programme."

The B-52 jammer upgrade is just one of many air force EW modernisation projects. Last year the USAF stood up a new management group to oversee all its aircraft EW upgrades while trying to streamline the upgrade process between different programme offices to keep costs down.

Initially, it is focusing on fixing the radar warning receiver on A-10 attack jets and jamming pods on F-16 fighters, "because they're stuck in the analogue world," says Schwarze.

The radar warning receivers in the A-10 Warthog are crystal-based, using similar technology to radios built in the 1930s, Schwarze points out. Most air force EW systems on legacy aircraft house a 286 microchip processor, the same as that used in personal computers built in the mid-1980s.

The air force first fielded digital RF memory-jammer technology in F-15C fighters in 1987, says Schwarze. The component worked well then, but is now obsolete against current surface-to-air missile threats.

Top USAF generals came up with the EW group idea after a series of meetings last year. Officials plan to digitise the A-10's radar warning receiver and remove the crystals, says Schwarze. They will then attempt to migrate the new technology to other aircraft.

But apart from some "breadboards" at the Air Force Research Laboratory, most of the CCJ concept remains solely on paper and no components have been flown or tested on a range. Officials envisage the wing pod being about 12m (40ft) long and weighing 2,270kg (5,000lb), similar to external fuel tanks. "We are looking at the technical maturation of that type of capability," says Schwarze.

Officials are now working on several aspects of this under initiatives funded in this year's defence budget. One of these includes the use of active electronically steered arrays.

The service plans to continue its AEA-related development in 2009 and air force officials have requested just over $34 million in research and development for the CCJ effort. Congress has yet to approve the Pentagon's budget, however.

Among the efforts under way is the development of four separate "critical technologies" that will play a key role in giving the B-52 a stand-off jamming capability. These include low-band, high-power transmitting phased arrays, mid-band high-power transmitting phased arrays, advanced exciters and aircraft integration systems engineering.

If the demonstrations built by multiple contractors are successful, follow-on acquisition contracts to build flightworthy jamming pods are expected.

Although the B-52 CCJ is the expected future transition platform for these demonstrators, the technology would also be applicable to other potential AEA system-of-systems platforms, including the EC-130H Compass Call and the EA-18G.

The air force also plans to initiate several engineering studies to explore installing such systems on the B-52, including the jamming pods themselves.

"We have to crawl before we walk," says one air force EW programme official. "We have to prove this technology is viable, doable - and that's what we're working on."

Programme's Fate

After an expected FY2012 demonstration, air force leaders must then decide the programme's fate. A platform could be fielded as early as 2015 or 2016, says Schwarze.

Both the USA's Northrop Grumman and UK defence giant BAE Systems are expected to compete for the eventual contract to equip a fleet of Stratofortress bombers with electronic attack capability.

Last year, Northrop and B-52 integrator Boeing formed a pact to compete together for the anticipated CCJ contract. At that time, the team presented what it called a "back to basics" version of the original stand-off jammer.

Since then, the pair have been working closely with air force EW officials, says Scot Oathout, Boeing's director of B-52 programmes. The team has submitted proposals for several technology maturation contracts, which industry officials expect to last about three years. Boeing CCJ officials tout their version of the EB-52 as an affordable "great basic stand-off jamming capability".

BAE has not decided whether to compete. In late May, Northrop said it had demonstrated - through an AFRL-funded study - that airborne electronic jammer aircraft were more effective and efficient when networked and enhanced by decision aids.

Researchers at Northrop Grumman's Bethpage, New York facility - the same Long Island plant that built most of the navy's F-14 fighters - first demonstrated that networking AEA jammers give war fighters more tactical options and flexibility than independently functioning electronic attack aircraft. Then, by adding decision aids to the jammers, the systems were found to be three to five times more effective than standalone jammers.

The study appears to validate the objectives of the 2005-cancelled Joint Unmanned Combat Air System programme, which was a joint air force and navy effort.

The 2005 Quadrennial Defence Review - a Pentagon requirements document updated every five years - directed the air force to terminate work on its portion of that programme and begin developing a new long-range bomber, which the service wants to field by 2018.

A final decision on whether the air force receives approval to allocate the funding in its internal spending plan is expected later this year. But funding levels and requirements could change when a new US president takes up office in January 2009.