The RAAF Transition and Tron Warfare: The Case of the Growler


By Robbin Laird

The RAAF has been in the throes of significant modernization over the last decade as the C-17, KC-30A, Super Hornet and the Wedgetail have come together to shape an integrated and effective power projection force.

The next wave of change is spearheaded by the F-35. But the introduction of the Growler is a part of this transition as well as the RAAF and the Australian Defence Force learn to operate more effectively in the electromagnetic spectrum and to reshape operational approaches to the use of non-lethal and lethal weapons.

The RAAF will see changes to Wedgetail along with the introduction of Growler and the F-35 and these three aircraft interactively will deliver new ways to fight in the tron warfare combat space.

The RAAF leadership is clearly focused on the air force as an integrating force, that is, as a force driving a way ahead for the whole of the ADF.

During our visit to Amberley Airbase in March 2018, Murielle Delaporte and I had a chance to meet with two key members of the Growler transition team to get an update on the progress since the August 2017 seminar on Electronic Warfare held by the Williams Foundation.

We met with Group Captain Timothy Churchill, Director of the Growler Transition Office and Wing Commander Taffie Smith, Deputy Director of the Growler Transition Office.

“Our intent in the Growler Transition Team in the Air Force is to actually start using Growler as a catalyst to understand fighting in the electro-magnetic spectrum.”

Much like the broad perspective delivered at the Canberra conference in August 2017, the Growler is not seen as an end in itself but a catalyst for change by providing hands on training, and combat experience to drive an overall RAAF transition.

At Williamtown, we discussed how Growler has been used both on the Blue and Red side at the same time, to change how the strike force operates both defensively and offensively.

This is the kind of change, which the RAAF is looking to drive with the addition of Growler.

Operating in a contested electro-magnetic environment as one builds out a distributed force will require what the team refers to as “trusted autonomy” in terms of recognizing friend and foe and working with trusted information and decision making inputs, outputs and throughputs.

By flying Growler now, the RAAF and the ADF gain domain knowledge of how to shape the force going forward both to operate in the contested tron environment and to operate in a way that allows a distributed force to be effective.

The RAAF can be a change agent not just for Australia but for Australia’s allies as well and this true as well for the tron warfare environment as well.

“I see Australia is actually in a really unique position, because we’re actually going to transition our whole air combat fleet to fight in terms of a fifth generation warfare approach.

“And we will do so quite a lot before the totality of the USAF or the totality of the U.S. Navy.”

For the team, they believe that the tron warfare domain is much more significant and dynamic in terms of impact than those who take a narrower look at EW and see it as a specialized weapon set.

And this will impact significantly on the introduction of new capabilities such as UAVs and other systems relying on software and artificial intelligence for these systems will be operating in a contested tron warfare environment, so assumptions made from operating UAVs in an uncontested environment simply have no validity going forward.

Learning how the tron warfare environment is unfolding and will unfold and learning from the cross cutting capabilities of F-35, Wedgetail and Growler will provide a key laboratory within which the RAAF and its allies can shape more effective capabilities.

Training facilities are being established in Australia both to learn how to operate Growler and to more generally conduct tron warfare across the force.

This means testing the impacts as well of using tron warfare attack tools on the blue force as well, and trying to mitigate fratricide and augment the combat effects on the Red Force.

The RAAF has begun exercising with Army and Navy to understand how best to use Growler to support the overall force, as well as for Army and Navy to consider how to evolve their own force modernization in light of the impact of a contested tron warfare capability upon their forces as well, including modernization.

Notably, as the Navy recapitalizes its fleet, understanding how the fleet will need to fight and win in the electromagnetic spectrum is a key to the future.

And having Growler engaged with Navy is part of this learning and developmental process as well.

Learning how to shape “trusted autonomy” capabilities throughout the combat force is essential as a distribute maneuver force is built out with the new platforms and capabilities being acquired by the ADF, more generally and the RAAF, more particularly.

The acquisition of Growler and how the RAAF and the ADF are leveraging the acquisition provide a particularly clear case of how they are looking at transformation.  Get the new platforms into the warfighters, and have them mix it up with the force and their partners and allies, and sort out a way ahead for the further modernization of the force.

Rather than a classic requirements driven approach, they are working towards an approach where training and combat experience using new platforms is the seed corn for further change and transformation.

Editor’s Note: The tron warfare concept has been pioneered by Ed Timperlake and we are using it here as the broad umbrellas covering cyber to electronic warfare to other non-kinetic means to disrupt and dominate the battlespace.

The featured photo shows an EA-18G Growler on the tarmac at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada during Exercise Red Flag 18-1.

At Red Flag, an Aussie Growler was involved in an incident which fortunately did not involve loss of life, but damage an Aussie Growler.

A January 28, 2018, Australian Aviation story highlighted the incident:

An apparent engine failure has seen an RAAF EA-18G Growler catch fire after an aborted takeoff from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada on Saturday morning US time.

“Defence can confirm an incident involving an EA-18G Growler at Nellis Air Force Base during Exercise Red Flag. Royal Australian Air Force personnel are safe and no serious injuries have been sustained,” a Department of Defence statement released shortly before midday on Sunday (Australian time) confirmed.

“Defence is currently working with the United States Air Force to investigate and will provide an update with further details once known.”

The Growler’s crew, comprising a pilot and an electronic warfare officer, were able to exit the jet on the ground without ejecting.