Airborne electronic attack has long been a domain dominated by a select group. But that is starting to change as more users get their hands on advanced communications jamming tools.

In the U.S., the vanguard of airborne electronic attack has been a small collection of assets: the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler, U.S. Air Force EC-130H Compass and more recently the Navy's EA-18G Growler. But an increasing number of manned and unmanned aircraft are likely to be given access to such tools; and, perhaps more critically, control over the devices will start shifting to ground forces.

Moreover, the U.S. is likely to see more countries trying to gain access to the electronic attack domain.

The Italian air force is developing an EC-27 “JEDI” electronic attack aircraft. The system is effectively a smaller version of the USAF EC-130H Compass Call.

Based on commercial off-the-shelf equipment, the system is set up as a roll-on/roll-off capability, says Col. Giuseppe Sgamba, who commands the Italian air force's electronic warfare (EW) center. The aircraft need to be modified with transmit-and-receive antennas, but the mission system in the back can be taken out to allow the airlifter to be used for other roles.

The primary mission is to jam any type of enemy communications, including in selective-reactive modes. A secondary mission would be to defeat radio-controlled improvised explosive devices by jamming the triggering signal. Thirdly, the asset would have electronic support measures, Sgamba told the Association of Old Crows/Shephard's Electronic Warfare Europe conference.

The program was begun as an experimental effort within the intelligence center. Flight trials have been conducted on Italian air force ranges, with a plan to possibly introduce the system into service soon. The initial capability is still rudimentary, but Sgamba suggests there is an effort to mature the capability.

Another shift in communications jamming is taking place in the U.S. Marine Corps. Late last month the service was on the verge of deploying its ALQ-231(V)1 Intrepid Tiger II electronic attack pod, an in-house development to equip Harriers with a communications-jamming capability. The technology is supposed to be an even more effective communications jammer than the USQ-113 operational on the service's EA-6B.

The pod has several modes. In one, the pilot can operate a set program but—more critical—in networked mode, troops on the ground can selectively jam particular bands. Unlike some of the broadband jamming now taking place, Intrepid Tiger II is to provide a precision electronic strike capability, says Lt. Col. Jason Schuette, head of the EW branch at the Marine Corps' Combat Development and Integration Command.

Signals intelligence personnel also can monitor the effect of jamming on an adversary and, potentially, make changes to reflect tactical realities. Uploading new jamming techniques may also be possible.

To minimize the need for integration, the Harrier treats the pod as a Maverick missile, with no changes to the operational flight program required.

Further developments are already underway, and upgrades to the current system will incorporate an electronic surveillance capability. Furthermore, Intrepid Tiger II Version 2 will be a two-pod configuration that will be carried on the RQ-9 Shadow UAV. The system will have 100% of the same software and 85% of the same hardware as the Harrier model, to reduce cost.

So far, the price tag for eight pods has been around $8 million. The Marines also have adopted an unusual development approach, acting as an integrator and working on an open-systems design where hardware components can easily be replaced when more capable or reliable ones become available. The work has been done at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Div., Point Mugu, Calif.

Integration on the F-35 is also being considered. Intrepid Tiger II and its follow-ons should give the Marines long-term electronic attack capabilities even after the EA-6B is retired in 2019.

In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force is crafting a plan to deal with its long-term electronic attack needs. The service believes it can fly the EC-130H for another two decades, but is likely to kick off an analysis of alternatives around 2015 to set long-term priorities.

For the Navy, much of the focus will be on the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ). The service expects to release a request for proposals for the hotly contested program this month, with bids due two months later. BAE Systems, ITT Exelis, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are the likely bidders for the technology development effort. Navy officials warn that the NGJ challenges are formidable. For industry, the stakes are also high with the losers in the competition facing questions over how to sustain key electronic warfare skills given the dearth of other programs to bid on.