The US Navy is looking to integrate its proposed Boeing EA-18 electronic attack aircraft with unmanned air vehicles (UAV) and a distributive network offered by the US Air Force, as a decision nears on a replacement for the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler.

The navy is also considering wiring the F/A-18F for the jamming mission as it is threatened with a cut in the number of planned Super Hornet orders.

The US armed forces are working on a complementary set of recommendations for fielding a new electronic attack capability, rather than three separate, but duplicate, solutions. These will be presented for a decision to the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in early June, and follow an analysis of alternatives, which failed to identify any single replacement system.

While the navy is keen to retain a dedicated platform aboard its aircraft carriers, this may meet only 80-85% of its needs. A UAV with stand-off cueing would be able to fly into hostile territory to jam or attack a target. "Whatever the DoD decides it will have to work with unmanned systems," says Paul Summers, Boeing director F/A-18 derivative programme.

The USAF is believed to prefer a similar distributed architecture, employing a mix of UAVs and expendable decoys, alongside fighters equipped with active electronically scanned array radars and large stand-off platforms. The USN and US Marine Corps' fleet of 122 ageing EA-6Bs, which provide jamming for the USAF, is shrinking and must be replaced by 2015.

Boeing has proposed a fleet of 180 EA-18s equipped with the Northrop Grumman Improved Capability (ICAP) III electronic countermeasures suite, due to enter service on the Prowler in 2005.

Summers says this is based on the USN continuing to support the USAF, without which the numbers shrink to 110-130 aircraft. A USMC decision to retain its EA-6Bs until a jamming version of the Joint Strike Fighter emerges would eliminate another 20 aircraft.

One possibility is that the USN may convert some two-seat Super Hornets to EA-18s and it has already costed manufacturing the fighter with the necessary wiring. A smaller EA-18 buy would push up unit costs and further exacerbate a recent Defence Guidance Planning proposal to cut planned F/A-18E/F numbers from 548 to 460. Negotiations for a follow-on multi-year procurement to the 222 now on order are on hold as a result, says Boeing.

Source: Flight International