The Need for SEAD

This is an article published in our Airborne Electronic Warfare Compendium from August/September 2016.

MBDA’s Meteor
MBDA’s Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile has been mooted as a possible anti-radar weapon in the future, potentially arming several European fighter types to this end. (MBDA)

Events in Syria notably the deployment of sophisticated Surface-to-Air Missile systems such as the Russian Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf to support Russia’s ongoing air campaign is giving the NATO pause for thought.

The area which systems such as the S-400 can cover, which has a reported interception range of 215.9 nautical miles/nm (400 kilometres/km) with its 40N6 SAMs, enables such a system to provide coverage across a significant swath of territory, making it a powerful Anti-Access/Area Denial weapon. Speaking at this year’s Electronic Warfare Europe conference and exhibition held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in early May, experts working closely with NATO provided an insight regarding how the alliance expects its Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) capabilities to grow in the future.

The AGM-88E/F HARM is the mainstay of NATO’s kinetic anti-radar capabilities. The weapon is in use with the US armed forces, as well as Germany and Italy. (US DoD)

The alliance’s heads of government September 2014 summit held in Newport, Wales, stipulated that from 2025, NATO’s European membership, and Canada, must provide 50 percent of the alliance’s SEAD capability. At present, the vast majority of the kinetic and electronic aspects of NATO’s SEAD posture is provided by the United States Air Force and the US Navy, via the Raytheon/Orbital ATK AGM-88E/F High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which is carried by the USAF’s General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Wild Weasel SEAD aircraft, and the USN’s McDonnell Douglas/Boeing FA-18 family fighters and electronic warfare aircraft. Nevertheless, European NATO members do possess some SEAD capabilities in the form of the Panavia Tornado-ECR SEAD aircraft furnishing the German and Italian air forces.

USAF F-16CJ Wild Weasel aircraft
The USAF and the US Navy continue to pick up the SEAD burden for NATO, using platforms such as this USAF F-16CJ Wild Weasel aircraft. (US DoD)

The presentation added that the alliance would have, in the future, to face an operating environment where radar could detect incoming aircraft at ranges of circa 539.9nm (1000km), with SAM ranges potentially increasing to 269.9nm (500km). In addition, radar detection frequencies are moving down the spectrum to Very High Frequency (VHF/three to thirty gigahertz) ranges as such systems can make it easier to detect aircraft with a low Radar Cross Section (RCS). Comparatively low frequency radars can be difficult to detect and geo-locate with existing airborne EW systems. Secondly, passive radars which detect the RF emissions from an aircraft’s communications systems such as its radios, datalinks and emissions from its radar, can be detected using so-called ‘passive radar’ which detects these transmissions and then geo-locates the aircraft.

The presentation continued that NATO foresees a trio of approaches as the optimum way to neutralise these threats, employing the tried and tested EW approach which employs destruction, disabling, deception, denial and degradation. NATO says that destruction can be achieved by using traditional kinetic means such as ARMs, conventional weapons, electronic warfare and Special Forces operations. Disabling the hostile electronic systems which an integrated air defence system relies on, namely radar, radio communications and computer systems, can be achieved using ARMs and electronic warfare, while cyber attack can be brought into play to deceive, deny and degrade these electronic elements.

MBDA’s Meteor
MBDA’s Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile has been mooted as a possible anti-radar weapon in the future, potentially arming several European fighter types to this end. (MBDA)

NATO’s approach is being met by working closely with industry and also with military and civilian research institutes. For example, last year the author was told that MBDA had been asked to assess the feasibility of developing its Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile as a possible future ARM. While no further information has reached Armada regarding this initiative, should the weapon be developed into an ARM, it could potentially offer platforms able to carry this missile, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Saab JAS-39C/D/E Gripen and the Dassault Rafale-F3B/C/D fighters with an ARM, and the wherewithal to perform true SEAD (as opposed to the destruction of enemy air defences using conventional weapons). With the exception of the Tornado-ECR aircraft operated by Germany and Italy, NATO’s European membership possesses no dedicated SEAD weapons.

The Luftwaffe’s Tornado-EDR aircraft
The Luftwaffe’s Tornado-EDR aircraft are part of a handful of SEAD assets which NATO has at its disposal. The alliance is now contemplating how it can deepen its SEAD capabilities. (US DoD)

The alliance is currently drafting a roadmap regarding how to reach the SEAD goals outlined at the Wales summit discussed above. Furthermore, the presentation emphasised the need for alliance members to ensure that the national SEAD capabilities that they currently possess, or which they could gain in the future, mesh with NATO’s overall SEAD strategy, as well as serving national doctrines. The prevailing vision is for NATO’s European membership to be ready to absorb this goal of 50 percent of the alliance’s SEAD capability by circa 2030.

Industry Perspectives

Industry is certain to be called upon to help NATO to achieve the goals discussed above. Beyond the alliance’s long-term requirements, companies involved in the airborne EW domain expect it to grow in the near future. Elettronica told Armada, via a written statement, that the “geopolitical situation boosts the need for EW capabilities” as events in Syria and Iraq discussed above have shown. Technology is also playing its role, with new techniques such as cognitive EW (see above) allowing the capabilities of current and future airborne EW systems to be increased, the company added. A written statement provided to Armada by Raytheon chimes with Elettronica’s assessment noting that “the threat continues to drive the evolution of airborne EW, and it’s evolving more rapidly than ever.” Moreover, the company continues that airborne EW can no longer be considered a ‘luxury’ item in the military aviation domain. “There was a time when EW was thought of as an optional capability, but with this evolving threat, our customers are recognizing the need for this capability across all platforms. For the purposes of situational awareness, and ‘eyes’ in the electromagnetic spectrum, don’t leave home without it.”

Raytheon has also recognized the need for airborne EW systems to become more responsive to the changing nature of the EW threat. “The threat evolution is happening on a timescale that makes traditional identification methods inadequate for the purposes of real-time or even near-real-time functions, such as self-protection. It’s increasingly agile, constantly changing its appearance (and) adapting on the fly.” This is where cognitive techniques come in, with the firm asking us to “imagine a threat identification system that doesn’t require a Mission Data File (MDF, containing details on the Radio Frequency threats an aircraft may face during a specific mission) that can identify radar threats, and if those threats modify their behaviour, the system keeps up with it. Aircraft would no longer have to land and wait for a reprogrammed MDF before it can fly again.” The company is heavily involved in developing such techniques, telling Armada “that’s what we’re pursuing, better algorithms and faster electronics that respond in real-time or near-real-time.”

A written statement supplied to Armada by Harris also mooted the importance of cognitive EW architecture: “The nature of today’s EW landscape requires technology with rapid response capabilities that can uncover cognitive insights about the environment in which it is operating in order to adapt to future threats in near-real time.” Making the next generation of airborne EW systems agile and responsive to current and emerging threats as vital, as John Wojnar, director of business development and advanced project solutions at Lockheed Martin observes, “The hardware will need to incorporate advancements which enhance the frequency range of operations as well as system bandwidth coupled with leveraging high speed digital processing. Large amounts of digital data will be generated by these systems requiring advancements in processing as well as memory.” Mr. Wojnar has also spotted the cognitive trend: “Advanced algorithms will move beyond brute characterisation using a small set of parameters to more agile, even cognitive processes which can assess the information being provided by the diverse set of potential threats, characterize them, identify them, and properly respond.”

Interference is another challenge for airborne EW engineers. According to Petter Bedoire, head of marketing at Saab’s EW business unit, civilian communication are increasingly creeping into frequency bands previously the preserve of radar. This is a result of the proliferation of cellphone communications worldwide, and the demands from the civilian world for increasing frequency bandwidth to ensure that this can be satisfied. The net effect of this is that the frequency spread in which radar can operate becomes reduced, and means that civilian communications can be ‘mixed up’ in the overall electromagnetic environment, along with military radar transmissions. Mr. Bedoire says that these challenges can be addressed through “through (the use) of very selective ultra-wideband digital receivers that can discriminate between different types of signals without reduced performance.”

Harris provided some additional thoughts to Armada regarding how they think airborne EW technology will develop, notably, the firm posits that open architecture in the design of EW systems will become increasingly important. “While open architecture has been on the radar for more than a decade, industry challenges still remain as it relates to acquisition strategy, despite industry solutions that are readily available to support mission needs.” Allied to the benefits which open architecture potentially offers, software defined architecture (where a systems’ capabilities can be enhanced through improving its software, with minimal or zero modifications to its hardware, thus saving costs), also offer promise. “Major platforms are too costly to continuously upgrade. As such, EW aircraft operators need access to systems that have the ability to navigate software intelligence for ongoing upgrades.” Potential drivers expected by Harris vis-à-vis the future airborne EW market include the need to make increasing use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies where possible in future EW systems to reduce design, production and acquisition costs. Allied to this is the ever-present need, Mr. Wojnar notes, to “reduce the size, weight and power needs of our next generation systems while developing the architectural capability for these systems to network to update and maintain effective situational awareness on the electronic battlefield.”

Regarding markets, Elettronica see demand for airborne EW systems in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region remaining strong. Larry Rexford, Electronic Warfare (EW) strategic development and marketing manager at Rockwell Collins, sees the ongoing strategic posture of Russia and the People’s Republic of China influencing the airborne EW market, with countries close to the borders of these nations re-examining their airborne EW posture, with the Ukrainian civil war, and Russia’s role in the conflict being a significant ‘wake up call’ in this regard. Germany’s Rhode and Schwarz, which is particularly active in the ELINT gathering domain believes that the airborne EW market will witness new entrants to the ‘club’ of militaries which have platforms capable to performing ELINT collection. “Emerging countries which have currently no airborne EW platforms in their portfolio are considering this capability as a necessity. For these countries a completely-equipped high performance airborne platform (such as the Boeing RC-135V/W Rivet Joint ELINT-gathering aircraft) will not be the best choice, but smaller, multirole (reconnaissance) platforms” will be a more practical acquisition.

Yet while markets may have drivers, such as those mentioned above, they can also experience restraints. Elettronica continued that issues with defence budgets around the world continue to risk slowing down the acquisition of airborne EW systems, both for new aircraft, and for retrofit programmes. However, as Raytheon notes, money is not the only issue, EW awareness is another. “EW has become increasingly important, but it can be tough to wrap your head around something you can’t see. There’s a driving need to further people’s understanding around what EW can actually bring to the fight and how to best implement its contribution; it’s a modern and a prime-time capability.” Ultimately, awareness, as much as finance and scientific ingenuity, will help to ensure airborne electronic warfare can continue to keep pace with today’s and tomorrow’s threats in a complex changing world.

The ability to ensure that radar threats can be destroyed in the future using electronic and kinetic means will remain a key occupation of the defence industry and EW practitioners. (US DoD)

by Thomas Withington