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A new attitude towards electronic warfare — Travis Hallen

On Wednesday 23 August, the Williams Foundation hosted a seminar exploring A New Approach and Attitude to Electronic Warfare in AustraliaIn this post, Wing Commander Travis Hallen reflects on the seminar presentations, outlines the history of electronic attack in the RAAF, and proposes what a new attitude to electronic warfare in Australia may look like.

The arrival of the RAAF’s first EA-18G Growler Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) aircraft at the Avalon Airshow in February this year marked a new era in the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) involvement in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Historically, RAAF interest in electronic warfare (EW) has been limited primarily to intelligence collection and the electronic support (ES) role. The arrival of the Growler has expanded the RAAF’s view of the EMS and has significantly enhanced the ability of Australian air power to exploit the EMS for tactical, operational, and strategic advantage through the use of the EMS to attack an adversary. But to fully realise the possibilities of this new capability and others that will soon be introduced requires a change in the attitude of Australian airmen towards the relationship between air power and the EMS. Understanding what this new attitude may be and how it can be fostered was the focus of the Williams Foundation EW Seminar held last Wednesday.

The seminar brought together operators, industry, and academics to discuss the role of EW in the Asia-Pacific, and importance of integrating EW capabilities across the joint and combined force. In this post, I want to focus on three presentations in particular which reflected the evolving attitude towards EW in the RAAF: Group Captain Andrew Gilbert’s (Director Air Power Development Centre) history of electronic warfare in the RAAF, Group Captain Glenn Braz’s (Officer Commanding No. 82 Wing) operator’s perspective on Growler, and JD McCreary’s (Georgia Tech Research Institute) perspective on the future of EW.

A brief history of Australian air power and EA

A Mesopotamian Half Flight Farman Pusher, similar to that used by Thomas White in 1915. [Image Credit: Australian War Memorial}

A Mesopotamian Half Flight Farman Pusher, Australia’s first EW aircraft. [Image Credit: Australian War Memorial]

In his opening presentation, Group Captain Gilbert highlighted the RAAF’s long but limited history in EW.

The involvement of Australian air power in operations to control and exploit the EMS date back to World War I. Australia’s first foray into denying an adversary’s use of the EMS occurred in November 1915 when Thomas White of the Australian Flying Corps’ Mesopotamian Half Flight flew behind enemy lines in a Farman Pusher to destroy Turkish telegraph wires with guncotton charges. Although the use of physical force to disrupt an adversary’s communications does not constitute what we now define as EW, White’s mission behind enemy lines reflects an early appreciation of the importance of air power in interfering with an adversary’s use of the EMS.

During the interwar period, the ability to exploit the EMS for tactical and operational advantage continued to grow with advances in radar and radio technology. By the outbreak of war in 1939, the EMS had come to play a vital role in surveillance, navigation, and communication. Developing and implementing ways to deny the adversary the operational advantages of the EMS attracted a growing level of interest across all theatres during the war. The RAAF became involved in the EA role when No. 462 Squadron was incorporated into the RAF’s No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group in December 1944.

No. 100 Group played an important role in protecting bomber raids over Germany. Using window, thin strips of aluminium designed to spoof German radar, and conducting radio jamming using specially designed Airborne Cigar aircraft, No. 462 Squadron was actively involved, albeit only for a limited period, in EA operations against German air defences. This would have provided an invaluable foundation for the development of post-war EW capability in the RAAF; however, like other Western militaries, Australian interest in EW declined at the end of the war, and RAAF involvement in EA largely ceased with the disbandment of No. 462 Squadron.

A No. 462 Squadron Halifax B. Mk. III Airborne Cigar Aircraft [Image Credit: Australian War Memorial]

A No. 462 Squadron Halifax B. Mk. III Airborne Cigar aircraft [Image Credit: Australian War Memorial]

During the Cold War, the lack of a credible electronic threat to Australian air power meant that the opportunity cost associated with investing in developing and maintaining an EA capability could not be justified. This is not to suggest that EA was ignored. Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) pods were developed and acquired for some aircraft including the Mirage, F-111, and the Neptune, but EA remained a lower priority in the battle for scarce resources. This is best illustrated by the fate of the program to acquire the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) for the F-111.

The Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) F-111 with AGM-88 HARM during trials. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

The Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) F-111 with AGM-88 HARM during trials. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

In the late 1970s, the RAAF began investigating the use of HARM in a maritime strike role. The concept was for the F-111C to carry a combination of HARM and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missile. The HARM would destroy the ship’s radars, leaving them defenceless. The Harpoons would then be used to sink the ship. The Harpoon entered ADF service the 1980s; however, prioritisation meant that HARM was not acquired. Resources were instead directed towards air-to-air missiles for the RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornets.

The operational implications resulting from the lack of prioritisation given to EW would become manifest in the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War. The United States made a formal request to the Australian Government for the deployment of the RAAF’s RF-111s to support operations against Iraq. The Government assessed the deployment too risky, and the F-111s involvement in the Gulf War would be limited to work up support for the deploying navy ships. It is interesting to note that the F-111s had been wired to carry the ALQ-131 ECM pod, and the United States had offered to loan the pods to the RAAF for the deployment, yet the Government remained unwilling to accept the risk.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Australian interest and investment in EW has grown significantly. This investment was critical to enabling the deployment of Australian aircraft to support operations in the Middle East in 2003 and again in 2014.

A new attitude to EW

Despite post-Cold War interest, EW in the RAAF has remained a niche capability developed by a small specialist community. This is starting to change. In his presentation, Group Captain Braz highlighted that the placement of Growler within Air Combat Group (the organisational home of the RAAF’s F/A-18s and future home of the F-35s) will assist in bringing EW into the mainstream of air power consciousness in Australia. There is much truth in this statement. The association of EW with fast jet operations that Growler provides has undoubtedly raised the profile of airborne EW both within the ADF and in the broader public sphere. This is a positive thing. But it is just the first step.

The acquisition of Growler is important to ADF operations now and into the future, but so too are the ISREW G550s which the Chief of the Air Force has described as the ‘the conductor of the [ISR] orchestra‘. The F-35 is designed to be as comfortable in the EMS domain as it is in the air domain. Beyond the platforms, we may soon see the proliferation of podded EW capabilities in non-traditional platforms, a concept that has been raised previously on this blog. Indeed, Group Captain Braz emphasised the need for the RAAF to move beyond platforms to payloads. As the RAAF continues its evolution into a fifth-generation air force the ability to control and exploit the EMS will see capability adaptation, and tactical and operational innovation occurring across the force.

But what does this have to do with a change in attitude towards EW in the RAAF? Put simply, EW is now starting to permeate all aspects of Australian air power operations. No longer is it possible for our airmen to delegate understanding of EMS operations to a small cadre of expert EW operators (EWOs), they must become EMS natives, alive to the criticality of the spectrum to their operations, regardless of the mission they are conducting. To quote Group Captain Braz, ‘the question isn’t who is an EW operator, the question is are you an operator in an age of EW?’ This is not to suggest that specialised EWOs are no longer required, quite the opposite, as the complexity of  EMS operations grows,  ensuring that we have sufficient trained and experienced subject matter experts to guide the development and employment of specialised EW capabilities will be critical.

What is required of Australian airmen now is to understand that the EMS is not just an important consideration in their mission planning, but a critical domain that will determine their success or failure in future operations.

Concluding thoughts

The perspectives on the past, present, and future of EW expressed by the various presenters at the seminar offered a number of useful insights that will hopefully continue to develop as the RAAF’s attitude towards EW evolves. But one perspective in particular bears emphasising, and it is a point on which I will conclude.

In his presentation on the future of EW JD McCreary, Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Chief of Disruptive Technology Programs, focused on the relationship between EW and decision superiority in the modern battlespace. To paraphrase, he stated that EW is about how we slow red and accelerate blue to achieve decision superiority. In this simple characterisation, I believe McCready captured the essence of how the RAAF’s attitude towards EW must evolve.

EW is not about roles, nor platforms, nor people, it is about effects. The question that the RAAF’s airmen must now be asking is: How does air power integrate with other capabilities to enable the ADF to control of the EMS and deny it to an adversary in order to achieve and maintain decision superiority at the tactical, operational, and strategic level?  This is the question that must be at the forefront of any discussion on Australian air power now and into the future.

Wing Commander Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer currently serving as Deputy Director – Air Power Development at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Government, or the Williams Foundation.


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