The US Navy is moving full-steam ahead on its Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) pod development effort, but integration onto the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been deferred indefinitely.
Instead, the USN is focusing on getting the NGJ developed and fielded onto the Boeing EA-18G Growler by 2020. The service expects the EA-18G will be in service until at least the mid-2030s. The NGJ is expected to replace the current AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods found on the Growler and the aging Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler.
At present, the USN hopes to have a final request for proposal (RfP) issued for the programme by the end of June. The USN recently issued a draft RfP earlier in April as it prepares to move the NGJ from a technology maturation effort into a full-scale developmental programme.
Captain John Green, the USN programme manager for airborne electronic attack, says that the NGJ effort is a little unusual in that there is usually an analysis of alternatives (AoA) prior to a Milestone A decision to start an acquisitions programme. However, on the NGJ endeavor, various technology maturation efforts started before that formal decision point because those technologies were not yet sufficiently mature.
The USN is currently undertaking a 33-month technology maturation effort with contracts issued to four companies: BAE Systems, ITT Exelis, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. But that phase is coming to a close and a full-scale prototype effort will soon be underway.
"We expect to release the final RfP for this in late June," Green says. The Pentagon should approve the document by mid-June, he adds.
Proposals from would-be vendors should be in by August after which the USN will conduct a source selection. Only one vendor will be picked for the technology development phase-which will involve building a full-scale prototype and a preliminary design. That contact will be awarded next June, Green says. "This is a kinda a winner-take-all type of competition we're going into," he adds.
The technology demonstration contract will run for 22 months from June 2013 to about April or May of 2015, Green says. After that, the effort will transition into a "sole-source" engineering, manufacturing, development (EMD) phase. That EMD contract will cover integration of the NGJ into the EA-18G in addition to the traditional milestones of critical design review (CDR) and building developmental test articles.
The EMD phase should run for about four years through 2019, Green says. The programme will then go into operational test late in 2019 or early 2020. Initial operational capability should happen in 2020.
The current focus for the NGJ programme is to develop a mid-band jammer, Green says. Mid-band is the most urgent need for the USN because most of the threats are found in that range. There is a relatively new and very capable low-band pod that is currently in production, Green says, which means that it does not need to be replaced immediately. Moreover, there are upgrades planned for that low-band jammer pod to keep it relevant to current and anticipated threat environment, he adds.
"The really urgent need is in the mid-band," Green says. "Ultimately, we'll have to look at upgrading the low-band and also add a high-band capability."
Green says he believes that the mid-band jammer will have to be a two-pod solution to allow for 360® coverage around the aircraft. There will be one pod on each side of the jet, not unlike the current system. However, the USN had originally wanted a single-pod solution.
The NJG will use active electronically scanned arrays (AESA) for its jamming pods. Unlike current generation systems which use gallium arsenide-based (GaAs) transmit/receive modules in those AESA antennas, the NGJ will use next-generation Gallium Nitride (GaN) chips.
"It blows my mind," Green says. "It is incredible the work that's been done over the last five or six years in GaN by the industry."
The new GaN chips could offer a better than ten-fold performance increase over the GaAs-based hardware-that includes superior handling of wide frequency bands.
"It's at least that," Green says. "We're seeing some very very good numbers."
Given the sheer power of the system, there is potential for the hardware to provide a powerful surveillance capability. The USN is examining the possibilities, but there would be limitations imposed by the shape and size of the pods.
The USN has dropped an earlier supersonic requirement for the new NGJ pod because the performance penalty in other areas of the flight envelop are too great. The current ALQ-99 pods are limited to Mach 0.95 even through the Super Hornet-derived E/A-18G is a supersonic airframe. The new NGJ pod will probably be optimized for subsonic speeds around Mach 0.9 or below.
"The reality of it is that we don't often have to go above 0.85 or 0.9," Green says. "It's not an optimum environment for what these aircraft do."
It is still an open question as to whether the NGJ will be integrated onto the F-35. Analysis has shown that it will be costly to integrate the new pods onto the stealthy fifth-generation jet, Green says. "Some of the preliminary numbers that we had for integration on the F-35-these were not small numbers," he says. "With the budget challenges that we have, it was decided that we would really take a singular approach right now with the Growler."
It will be several years before the USN takes another look at integrating the NGJ onto the F-35, Green says. That is because of the sheer cost of integration. In fact, when that might happen is anyone's guess.
"Depending upon the capacity that we need in airborne electronic attack, it is conceivable that we would stay with the Growler and not even look at a second platform until late into the next decade," Green says.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) is looking at alternative ways of conducting the electronic warfare mission. One of those might involve dispersed pieces of the NGJ pods flying on unmanned aircraft or other platforms which are commanded via data-links, Green says. Those dispersed jamming pods could be controlled from the ground or potentially from a Growler.
An early example of that concept can be found in the guise of the US Marine Corps' Intrepid Tiger II jamming pod that was developed in-house at the Naval Air Systems Command, Green says. The Intrepid Tiger II is controlled via data-links by controllers on the ground. That pod will be deploying to Afghanistan this summer.