Despite a squeeze on investment accounts, the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 budget strategy prioritizes funding for the stealthy F-35—but at what cost, some in industry ask.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made clear the spending plan is a result of making hard choices and trades.

However, this virtually singular focus is jeopardizing U.S. dominance in electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, according to some industry officials, who note that even a stealthy aircraft like the F-35 requires some protective jamming support to penetrate the “bubble” of protected enemy air space. A pinch on research, development and procurement funding coupled with a necessary focus on addressing counterinsurgency threats for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade have contributed to a loss of focus at the Pentagon on EW planning, they say. “We stopped doing some campaign analysis,” acknowledges Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.

Critics of the Pentagon's EW strategy point to the fiscal 2015 budget's termination of the U.S. Navy's ties to Boeing's Super Hornet production line. The service likely will buy only its planned 138 EA-18G Growlers, the Pentagon's newest airborne EW system, and deploy five to each carrier air wing. Navy officials have put funding for 22 more Growlers on their fiscal 2015 wishlist, but without relief from the spending constraints of the Budget Control Act, Boeing will be on its own to continue building the aircraft, unless the Navy can buy more Growlers. Congress approved funding for 21 ship sets of EA-18Gs in the fiscal 2014 budget.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is also planning to mothball seven, or half, of its EC-130 electronic attack aircraft in fiscal 2013, saving $315.8 million. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jim Jones, director of operations, plans and requirements, says that the service “can't afford to program to a no-risk force, [and further investment in stealth] is a piece of that. . . . All of these capabilities add up to a more survivable capability.” When questioned about whether the Air Force would backfill the lost EC-130s with some other capability, Jones declines to provide information, acknowledging that this is likely an “unsatisfying” answer. This could point to a capability being developed in the classified world.

Much of the concern of skeptics is centered on the emergence of very-high-frequency (VHF) radars, which uniquely can be used to detect stealthy aircraft. “All 'stealth' means is delayed detection in [a specific] frequency,” says one industry official. With a VHF system, “you are essentially the size of your aircraft from long range,” the official notes. The concern is that these long-range radars can pass data to fire-control systems—including active, electronically scanned array radars—that are capable of launching air defense weapons. The integration of the two could compromise the advantage stealth brings, which is to make the aircraft hard to target rather than making it invisible.

“We are starting to see the emergence of some stressing capabilities to our conventional forces,” Shaffer says. That “other countries are going out of band is a threat and is a challenge to our systems. Make no mistake about it,” he says.

“VHF radar can't do fire-control, but they can see you,” says Mike Gibbons, Boeing vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18G programs. “With low-frequency radars, they can tell which way to look, and they can scramble their super-cruising aircraft out to you. At that point, stealth isn't going to help you.”

As it shifts focus away from counterinsurgency operations, the Pentagon is planning to dust off and update its campaign plans for more stressing engagements, such as addressing the anti-access, area-denial problem posed by new air defenses being developed and fielded by Russian and Chinese manufacturers. In doing so, the Pentagon likely will adjust its force structure plans for EW, including a possible increase in the number of Growlers needed, as well as ongoing work for the F-15 Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System (Epaws), Raytheon Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammer (Mald-J) version and podded or towed decoy options. The Navy, for example, is investing in podded Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jammer systems through the Filthy Badger and Filthy Buzzard projects.

Fleet structure studies are done annually, and any changes would be briefed to Pentagon leadership for possible adjustment in the fiscal 2016 budget this summer, Shaffer says.

“All aircraft can be seen by certain radars. The trick is to disrupt the [kill] chain when someone can lock weapons on you. We are talking about the 'perishability' of stealth,” Gibbons says.

Growler advocates argue that the EA-18G, with its wide-spectrum EW and electronic-attack capabilities should be the “quarterback” for future strike packages, with the electronic-warfare officer in the backseat essentially managing the electronic battle.

During a flight demonstration last summer, Boeing showed that two EA-18Gs were capable of passively detecting a threat emitter and passing “very accurate” targeting data for a strike within “minutes.” Company analysis suggests adding another Growler to the engagement would allow for generating target coordinates in seconds. This operational concept could condense the time element of the kill chain and get at the “counter-shutdown” problem for air defenses, when threat emitters intermittently radiate and then shut down to avoid being targeted by radar-seeking weapons such as the AGM-88E Advance Anti-Radiation Guided Missile.

In its campaign to restore funding for the Growler, Boeing will have to walk a careful line. The company has to make the case that without more Growlers, even the stealthiest aircraft in the Pentagon's fleet are vulnerable to emerging air defenses. This is a thorny and challenging argument to make as it quickly veers into classified territory. And its Pentagon customer is loath to acknowledge that its multibillion-dollar investment in stealth aircraft could be made vulnerable by comparatively small investment in networked air defenses. Boeing is already aggressively engaging Congress to lobby for more Growler money and has launched a grass-roots advocacy campaign website.

Although F-22s and F-35s are the most capable platforms at penetrating air defenses, they are not silver bullets and still require capable escorts to standoff at the edge of a hostile range to control the electronic battlefield, Growler advocates say. They suggest doubling the number of Growlers in each carrier air wing to 10. There is “plenty of room” on the future carrier deck to accommodate the additional aircraft, the industry official says.

While carrying the most advanced and fused avionics available, the F-35 is able to influence only the electronic battle within the frequency of its own Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 radar. But if an F-35 encounters a threat not in its database or outside its own radar band, it likely would not address it—whereas an electronic-warfare officer on an EA-18G could discern its capabilities and suppress it, if needed, the industry official says.

A final fleet determination has not yet come out of the Navy for Growlers, but Shaffer says the plans in place are sufficient for now. “We maintained our EW focus and in some cases have been looking to accelerate,” he says, noting investments in Mald-J and Epaws and hinting that classified work may be underway.

During a March 12 hearing, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said he sees a “growing need” for more Growlers. The questions are: When it will be announced? And when will it be funded?

With Guy Norris in El Segundo, Calif.