Shaping a Way Ahead with Regard to Electronic Warfare: The Perspective from HAVOC


By Robbin Laird

With the strategic shift from the land wars to engaging in higher end conflict situations with peer competitors, electronic warfare and its role is changing as well.

When Ed Timperlake and I visited Fallon in 2017, we met with members of HAVOC, the US Navy’s Airborne Electronic Attack Weapons School. It was clear that much of the experience of the team had been in supporting ground forces in the land wars and played a significant role in so doing.

But it was clear that the team was transitioning as well for the strategic shift, and the expanded role of electronic warfare with peer competitor engagements.  We highlighted in our report about that meeting the following:

“It is clear that the HAVOC leadership looks at their work as providing key tools for the current fight, including embedding Naval aircrews with ground maneuver elements in our current wars.

“However, they are also significantly laying the foundation for the con-ops evolution of many the tactics and training for combat employment of high intensity non-kinetic payloads in the digital battlespace. Significantly in building to the future, they are working their “tron magic” across the joint and coalition force.”

We discussed with the team, the beginnings of the kill web approach in which working closely with the USAF, the US Navy was focused on expanding the platforms engaged in electronic warfare as a function, rather than simply training to what the Navy’s particular platform, in this case, the Growler could do.

Recently, I had a chance to get an update on the work of HAVOC and discussed the focus of their efforts and the way ahead being shaped by the NAWDC team. CDR Brett Stevenson, the Commander of HAVOC, highlighted how HAVOC was addressing the changing combat environment and how the focus on force integration was a key driver in shaping a way ahead.

We discussed a number of issues, and while I will not quote the CDR directly, I will highlight a number of takeaways from our conversation which provide insights into shaping a way ahead for the tron warfare element within the full spectrum crisis management force.

My first takeaway would start right there – it is about full spectrum of warfare, not just the high-end fight.

Being able to operate within and to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum is not a nice to have capability but is becoming a core requirement for effective engagement in conflict scenarios across the spectrum of warfare.

The second takeaway is that HAVOC is not focused on the management of a single exquisite platform per se, but upon how that platform operates in the joint force with other joint or coalition force assets to deliver the broad non-kinetic effect required.

In a core mission area, suppression of enemy air defenses, HAVOC is working closely with the USAF Weapons School at Nellis in shaping a variety of capabilities, including but not limited to F-35, Compass Call, space-based assets and cyber-war assets to deliver the best air suppression capability possible. They along with the USAF are looking holistically at the integrated air defense system.

Within their domain, they are working a kill web approach to generate a synergy of effects enabling the force to take down air defense systems in a much more effective and efficient manner than if it was all about the Growler. In this case, it is about sensors and shooters working together through a non-kinetic kill web.  When the CNO put out his FY21 Unfunded Priorities List (which includes Next Generation Jammer), it is interesting to note is that he equated NGJ and EW with increased lethality for the force.

Integrating such capability into the overall strike mission is a virtual redefinition of what lethal strike actually means in a kill web approach.

A third takeaway is that all the hard work being done between HAVOC and Nellis is not just about honing current operational capabilities.

It is in part, shaping how to leverage the sensors and capabilities inherent in Growler which can be used within both kinetic and non-kinetic kill webs. It is also about shaping domain knowledge informing modernization approaches to the kill web EW capability as well.

This would mean it is not just about upgrading a particular platform but looking at the integrated effect and sorting through where major effects could be had by modernize particular tool sets which might be found on different platforms, rather than having to be resident on a particular platform. Not everyone needs to play quarterback.

The fourth takeaway is that HAVOC is preparing for the coming of the next generation jammer pod on the Growler in the relative short term.

Next Gen jammer is the most significant leap in Navy EW since the introduction of Growler. Next Gen jammers will bring a significant increase in both power and capacity to the Growler.

And that preparation process is not simply about HAVOC watching briefings. It is about being engaged in the test process as well. HAVOC is fully embedded within the NGJ test community and their industry partners.

They are engaged in creating and validating tactics and initial employment options which means that when NGJ comes to the force, the learning curve to operational use will be significantly shortened.

One of NAWDC’s main lines of effort is in creating, validating and ultimately teaching advanced Tactics Techniques and Procedures, and at no time is this effort more critical than when new capabilities are first introduced. Their role is to shape the way the force will employ these new technologies so that Carrier Air Wings can train to these standards, come to Air Wing Fallon to prove them on the range, then be ready to consistently and reliably deliver those capabilities in combat.

This is why HAVOC has been involved in the development of NGJ from the start, and will see it through to fleet introduction and beyond.

The fifth takeaway is that preparation by HAVOC for NGJ is not simply about a particular technology.

The HAVOC team is looking beyond their currently defined capabilities to figuring out what technologies are needed and how we would employ those to their benefit in a high-end fight.

The sixth takeaway is one which is true of most of the current training ranges.

They were set up for legacy adversarial warfare, then adjusted to the global war on terror, and now back to the past, or adversarial warfare, but now in a different technological era.

In the case of NAWDC, the EW ranges were conceived in the 1970s and the ’80s as a place where the carrier air-wing could conduct strike warfare training against an air defense system that replicated the capabilities and tactics of the Soviet Union.

There is clearly a challenge to ensure that the NAWDC range is resourced and equipped with the right training systems that will prepare carrier air-wings to be successful in the high-end fight and to do so within the context of rapidly changing technologies on BOTH the red and blue sides.

And clearly, when it comes to EW, training is always going to be challenging because of the question of dealing with frequency restrictions.

Frequency utilization is definitely a challenge that’s inherent in operating and training for electronic warfare. This enhances the importance of the Australians joining the Growler community and building relevant test ranges in Australia as well. But also highlights the importance of live virtual constructive training in this domain as well as cross linking capabilities in this non-lethal domain with the broader strike force.

The seventh takeaway is the coming of Growler Block II.  

The next iteration of the aircraft will provide additional sensor enhancements will expand battle space awareness to the networked force. And with the evolving capabilities of software upgradeability, there is a clear prospect of proliferating EW capabilities as well within the networked force.

The expanded presence of remote assets will play a role as well of expanding the reach of EW capabilities woven into the kill web as well.

An eighth takeaway is about allies and the Growler.

We did discuss the potential German acquisition of the Growler as well. I would like to say, the CDR reminded me, but if you do not know a fact, you can be reminded of it, that the Germans are long standing partners with the US Navy as well in EW.

The CDR noted that there is a long-standing exchange officer program with the Luftwaffe at VAQ-129, the Growler training squadron. This means that UK and German legacy EW training via Tornado plus the Australians would add up to an EW coalition being trained in the evolving and developing 21st century approach to EW.

I do know from my visit to Finland that the Finns are interested in a possible Growler acquisition as well.

And the final takeaway is one of the most important from the discussion, namely, the addition of non-kinetic targeteers to the air wing.

Certainly, kinetic targeteers have been part of the air wing for a long time, but with the growing importance of the non-kinetic domain and its integration into kill web operations, there is a growing need for targeting knowledge in the non-kinetic domain.

Growler intelligence officers are fully integrated in the mission planning, execution and debriefing process along with the Growler operators. The non-kinetic targeteers are comprised of both Growler Squadron Intel Officers, and their enlisted Intelligence Specialists and Cryptological Technicians.  These subject matter experts integrate into the broader Carrier Air Wing Intel team, applying their non-kinetic targteteering expertise to aid in mission planning and to inform the efforts of intel collection managers for the entire Carrier Strike Group.

What that then provides is a team able to analyze an air defense problem and determine where the Growler capabilities would fit most effectively in the SEAD mission. This means as well that they will need to know what the other platforms relevant to a SEAD mission could contribute to sort through the most effective division of labor in executing the joint mission.

This means as well these officers can help support not only the Growlers but the entire air-wing to understand the evolving threat which means that the understanding of threat envelope is being continuously maintained and refreshed. In other words, the air wing has on board officers who can inform the operational community about the changing nature of the threat being experienced in ongoing operations.

More generally, there is a 14-week course at HAVOC, that is a distinct training process that produces “Growler Intelligence Officers,” which are Intel “patch-wearers” similar to Growler Tactics Instructors (GTI), or TOPGUN graduates. These highly specialized Intel Officers will either remain on the NAWDC staff, serve at the Electronic Attack Weapons School in Whidbey Island, or other billets where specialized knowledge of non-kinetic effects is desired. They are distinct from the intel team on a Carrier Air Wing staff.

In short, HAVOC is working within the Navy, the joint force and the coalition a way ahead with regard to kinetic and non-kinetic kill web capabilities.

Given the growing potential of such systems within the evolving battlespace, there will be no end of opportunities and challenges for this part of Naval Aviation.

In 2017, the Williams Foundation held a conference on the future of electronic warfare, which featured presentations from both Australian and US Navy Growler operators.