The US Navy has made the first move to develop and field its first all-new aerial jamming system since 1971.
The next-generation jammer (NGJ) project is first aimed at boosting the electronic attack power of the Boeing EA-18G Growler, which will enter service in June.
But the replacement for the navy's ageing EDO ALQ-99 pod could widen the mission to other platforms, such as an EA variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the US Marine Corps. The US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) on 12 February kicked off a four-month study to identify and prioritise the functions needed for the NGJ to replace the venerable ALQ-99.
Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research has selected four contractors - BAE Systems, EDO, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon - to conduct separate studies on technology advances required for the NGJ to enter service after 2018. Electronically scanned arrays are the most attractive candidate for the NGJ transmitter.
Both efforts will feed into a final analysis of alternatives, which will determine the best approach to develop and acquire an NGJ. The current schedule calls for full-scale development of the system to begin after fiscal year 2012.
The navy's next jammer faces a far wider set of hostile threats than was contemplated when the ALQ-99 entered service at the end of the Vietnam War era. First, the increasing reach of integrated air defence systems is driving the service's aerial jamming fleet, comprising Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowlers, to the edge of the ALQ-99's transmit range.
Wars against insurgents and terrorists have also broadened the definition of hostile emitters to include low-band devices, such as commercial mobile phones. Although requirements remain fluid, NAVAIR intends to design the NGJ to be flexible enough to be effective against both types of threat, says Capt Steven Kochman, programme manager for PMA-234, the office charged with sustaining the EA-6B fleet and developing the NGJ.
NAVAIR must be careful to avoid the fate of the US Air Force's ill-fated Stand-off Jammer System (SOJS) programme, which was originally aimed at equipping its Boeing B-52H bombers with wing-tip pods for long-range jamming of early warning radars. But the air force's requirements dramatically expanded as the "war on terror" exposed new threats. Programme costs soared from $1 billion to $7 billion, leading the USAF to terminate the project in 2005.
But Kochman says NAVAIR's strategy will work. "We are going to be looking at a broader set of threats from the beginning," he adds.
Meanwhile, the USN project has also garnered interest from the Core Component Jammer programme, the USAF's proposed follow-on to SOJS. The two efforts have not yet melded into a formal "joint" programme, but the two services are collaborating daily on technical issues.
The navy is, meanwhile, investigating the cause of a 12 February crash that destroyed an EA-6B operating from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. The aircraft's four crew members were rescued after ejecting from the aircraft off the Pacific island of Guam.