This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over funding for an alternative to the EA-6B Prowler. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.
As warfare has
become more sophisticated, weaponry is increasingly characterized by an array
of electronic and computerized features. Smart bombs, for example, are guided
by computerized instructions that guide the explosive to the exact, preprogrammed
target. By today's standards radar is in an ancient technology, a Model T
in an era of Ferraris. For air warfare, however, it is still a basic tool
for "seeing" enemy planes before they reach their targets. And when
defender's radar "locks on" to the electronic image of an enemy
combatant's craft, that radar can guide a missile to shoot it down. But of
course it's not quite that simple. Since it's known that bombers flying toward
a target will be subjected to enemy radar, that air force will take steps
toward interfering with its enemy's radar. If it didn't, its planes would
be easy targets for the enemy opposition.
The United States has depended for many years on the EA-6B Prowler to jam enemy radar. The Prowlers fly ahead of the fighters and bombers that will deliver the payload on enemy targets, using the electronic equipment on board to confound the radar systems designed to track our aircraft. While the electronics have become increasingly complex, the mission remains relatively straightforward. One observer noted, "If you can get on the [enemy's] frequencies and keep them from getting on our frequencies, you end up saving our airplanes." But he added, the Prowler is "an older airplane. . . and it's getting tired and so it's time to replace it." As each year goes by the situation with the Prowler becomes more serious as more planes develop problems that cannot easily be fixed. "It's a Band-Aid fleet we patch up as best we can," said one congressional aide. And no more of the planes are being built.
In the 107th Congress there was broad agreement that the armed forces needed to replace the EA-6B. There was no agreement, however, as to the best approach. There are three alternatives. One is to take a more modern plane currently used by one of the service branches and adapt it for electronic jamming missions. The most likely candidate would be the F18. Such an adapted model has been tentatively labeled the F18-G (or "Growler"). The second option is to use a reconfigured unmanned aircraft like the Predator. (The Predator recently came into public view when one of the unmanned craft flying over Yemen fired a missile into a car carrying an alleged Al Qaeda leader. The automobile and all its inhabitants were obliterated.) Finally, the third option is to build a new plane from the ground up. One defense expert said it's "the most expensive approach, [just] a clean sheet of paper. . . something brand new."
The choice among these three alternatives is complicated by the imponderables of how the different planes will do in actual combat. Although war gaming may offer some clues, there is no way of knowing for sure how each plane will perform until it is tested in real battle situations. Nevertheless, strong opinions can be found to support each approach, both inside the military and out. Since different aerospace contractors would build the different planes, each has an enormous financial stake in the ultimate decision made by Congress and the Pentagon. These corporations are working with the members of Congress who serve in the states and House districts where the planes would be built to push their case forward.
In the 107th Congress the stakes were not as high as will be the case when the final decision must be made. Instead, a more limited decision was the inclusion of $30 million in the military budget to initiate the studies that will determine what new platform will developed for the next generation of electronic air warriors. Stay tuned for the main event.