By Antony Scholefield
Published 23/03/2016

The Australian government has used its 2016 Defence White Paper to pledge about $10 billion over 20 years to electronic warfare, an area emerging as a key battleground of the future.

Electronic warfare, or EW, became a hot topic in October 2015 after Russian forces blocked battlefield communications and even disrupted drones in Ukraine and Syria. Paul McLeary wrote in Foreign Policy that the US had to “scramble to catch up” with Russia’s “eye-watering” EW tools.

The US had only “a fraction of the EW forces… fielded by potential adversaries like Russia and China,” he said.

David Stupples, a Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, wrote in The Conversation that Russia, Europe, and even the lagging US were investing “billions of dollars each year in research and development in order to be the best at this essential military art, while Asian countries, led by China, also view EW as a vital area for research and development.” Mary-Ann Russon wrote in the Internal Business Times that Russia was using EW to fight the Islamic State in Syria, but also to evade scrutiny from NATO forces.

Australia’s recently-released Defence White Paper was in the works before October 2015. It wasn’t a direct response to those events. Nevertheless, investments in EW will be crucial as Australia tries to meet this new challenge.

The emergence of Russia and China as EW superpowers means a lot for Australia. It means the Australian government needs to invest in its own EW capabilities, which it is doing. However, the government must also accept that, while working primarily with the US, it won’t be able to promise Australians that the best EW units in the world are defending the nation’s interests.

Australia’s new investments will include 12 Growler aircraft with electronic attack abilities and up to five long-range EW support aircraft. Between $600 million and $900 million is slated for other areas, such as operational support and a joint integration program.

A commitment to 12 EA-18G Growlers was struck with the US in June 2014, although the Defence White Paper formalised the funding. The aircraft will cost about $175 million each, with all 12 scheduled to arrive by 2023 for a total cost of $2.1 billion. Australia received its first Growler from Boeing in July 2015.

The government has also budgeted between $5 billion and $6 billion for enhancements between 2017 and 2035 – nearly three times the cost of the unmodified aircraft. This highlights the significance of maintaining cutting-edge technology in the fast-moving area of EW.

Boeing promotes the EA-18G Growlers as “the most advanced airborne electronic attack platform.” Physically, the aircraft are based on F/A-18F Super Hornets. (Australia currently has 24 Super Hornets, which contribute to the fight against Islamic State and rest at RAAF Air Base Amberley near Ipswich in Queensland.) The Growlers have specific EW tools, such as jamming pods, plus improved radio receivers and communication tools built onto the basic Hornet frame.

The Air Force expects the Growlers to provide support for the Super Hornets and future Lightning II aircraft. They will disrupt or deceive the enemy’s electronic systems, including radar detection and communications tools. They won’t, however, enter any military operations until 2018, after pilots have received technical training from US experts.

Australia was the first nation after the US to obtain a Growler aircraft, under a foreign military sales agreement with the US Navy. Yet despite Boeing’s promises, the US was shown up on EW last year, and given its shortcomings in this field, Australians can’t assume that “as good as the US” means “best in the world.” As long as Russia and China lead the US in this field, Australia has to accept that it’ll lag behind too.

Similarly, the five long-range EW support aircraft will be delivered in two “tranches” and gradually upgraded to “maintain commonality” with the US. The five aircraft will cost between $2 billion and $3 billion in total and are slated to arrive by 2025.

The aircraft will be based on the Gulfstream G550, a model of luxury aeroplane built in Georgia, America, and usually preferred by Fortune 500 companies or super-wealthy private jet owners. Like the Growlers, they’ll give Australia a greater EW presence, but won’t match the all-out offensive power of Russian or Chinese EW units.

In the age of drones and high-tech communication, EW will become more important than ever before. Unless Australia reaches a wildly-unexpected future where China becomes a greater military ally than the US, the Australian government won’t be able to invest in “eye-watering” EW capabilities like those used by China or Russia.

Voters can just hope the Australian government won’t feel compelled to lie by claiming it’s investing in the world’s best technology. A statement like that would be patriotic and reassuring, but almost definitely untrue.

Still, the government is at least doing what it can. The investments covered in the Defence White Paper, world-leading or not, will be critical to Australia’s electronic warfare capabilities over the next 20 years and beyond.