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Stray Trons

Banging Trons in The Stan

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

I just saw a short profile story from Navy PAO about VAQ-135, a Prowler squadron stationed aboard the USS Nimitz, and it got me thinking.

So the article is pretty vanilla…

“Our main focus of effort is to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. That means we preserve it for coalition forces, and we deny its use to Afghan insurgents. If we can successfully do that, many times the ground commander may not need a bomb,” said Lt. Cmdr. Blake Tornga, maintenance officer from VAQ-135.

The missions Prowlers fly directly support the July 2009 tactical directive issued by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

What they mean by “tactical directive” is to limit collateral damage, so the PA who wrote the story is ham-handedly trying to highlight the Prowlers’ efforts as limiting the “kinetic” side of the Naval aviation equation. That’s all well and good, but of course — as with anything in “print” involving this community — there are no specifics in here. “Dominate the electromagnetic spectrum” has a lot of meanings, but what are they specifically for Afghanistan?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Afghanistan, but back in 2004 the Prowlers were flying mostly communications intercept missions, though I got this second hand from ground pounders since when I asked if I could interview the Prowler drivers at Bagram the PAO said “what Prowlers,” those ones on the tarmac there, I said…“I don’t see any prowlers” he deadpanned without looking toward the runway (nuf said). Now, I wonder if that’s all they’re doing as well, or are there enough electronic detonators for IEDs that the Prowlers are jamming signals or throwing out electrons to detonate the roadside bombs before friendlies get there. From this quote, it seems like that might just be what they’re doing…

“There are very few electronic attack platforms out there,” said Tornga. “We are the only tactical electronic attack platform. Mountain valleys, small turns, staying tight with a convoy, that mission right now can only be done with the EA-6B.”

So they’re escorting convoys? And conducting electronic “attack.” Now we’ll start to see IEDs rigged with pressure plates and IR trips that are signal neutral.

And the best line by far:

“Some of the real-time feedback we get from the ground troops after a successful mission makes me realize why we need to be here, and it makes this deployment very, very meaningful.”

Like “thanks for blowing up that freaking bomb before my MRAP got to it!”

(Gouge: NC)

– Christian

Army Building Electronic Warfare Soldiers

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009


They worked on Droids in Star Wars, so why not an al-Qaeda communications center.

“They” are electro-magnetic grenades — not something you’ll find in the typical armory but apparently something that could soon be in the hands of GIs.

“EMP grenade technology is out there, but I’ve never had my hands on one,” said Col. Laurie Buckhout, chief of the newly formed Electronic Warfare Division, Army Operations, Readiness and Mobilization, during a bloggers roundtable Tuesday from the Pentagon.

A Web search for “Electro Magnetic Pulse grenade” turns up a number of hits, many related so Star Wars and gaming sites. One Star Wars-oriented site notes EMPs also are known as Electrostatic Charge Detonators and were an anti-droid weapon used during the Clone Wars.

The EMP grenade was one of several sci-fi type weapons that the military has been developing and, in some cases, fielding. Buckhout also mentioned lasers for taking out missiles and the so-called Active Denial System, which uses microwaves which heat a person’s skin to uncomfortable levels.

The purpose of the roundtable to was discuss the Army’s new Electronic Warfare career field, a 29-series MOS that will include officers, warrant officers and enlisted personnel. The career field grew out of the Army’s need for an expert force able to counter radio-controlled IEDs, though the troops making up the new specialty will be doing more than that, according to the Army; they’ll also be the go-to people for commanders wanting to know how they can exploit the electromagnetic spectrum tactically across their operations.

The Army has wanted an organic EW corps for some time. Personnel responsible for EW in Iraq and Afghanistan are mostly drawn from the Navy and Air Force, according to Buckhout. Using portable jammers, they can dominate the radio spectrum defeat any signal coming from a cell phone or other device used to trigger a roadside bomb.

But there’s a problem: the jammers may also interfere with legitimate radio signals. These can include U.S. troops’ own systems, radio-controlled links to robots used by IED demolition teams and emergency communications systems.

Thus, the Army’s drive to come up with signal-jammers that can be slewed into specific emitters. Large systems, such as those employed by aircraft, can do the job, Buckhout said, but it’s “like using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.”

It kills the mosquito, she said, but it does a lot of damage, too.

“The Army needs to have its own … on-the-ground assets to complement our abilities,” she said, “to get the enemy first or stop them from getting us on the ground.”

“Electronic warfare is going to be fought on the ground, not just in the air, and you have to have an attack from the ground point of view.”

The new Army career field will number 1,619 Soldiers in all, and th-ey will come from the active-duty, reserve and National Guard, she said. It will give the Army the largest professional ED cadre of any branch of the U.S. or NATO militaries, she said.


The Growlers Are Coming Out to Play.

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

In just a few months, the first electronic attack versions of Boeing’s F/A-18 fighter jet will make their way to Whidbey Island in Washington State.


The EA-18G will have state-of-the-art jammers and communications gear, as well as an arsenal of missiles and bombs, Boeing and Navy officials said this week at the Navy League conference. The Navy plans to buy about 80 Growlers, at a cost of roughly $8.7 billion, according to the official program plans.

The new jets will replace the aging EA-6B Prowler fleet, which pilots say is much harder to land on a carrier than its brand-new replacement.

This year, the Navy will hold operational evaluation testing, while also delivering planes to Whidbey Island so instructors can get ready to train the first squadron next year. The planes will come online officially in Sept. 2009, the projected date for Initial operational capability and graduation of the first class.


Banging Trons in the Open

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007


We posted on our sister site at Military​.com a story today about the use of EA-6B Prowlers to counter the improvised explosive device threat in Iraq.

This is significant because it marks the first time the story has made it out into the open press. Those of us who have embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the years knew about this powerful counter-IED technology, but we refrained from reporting on it at the request of commanders who didnt want the secret mission out in the open.

It was the spring of 2004, when I was in Bagram, Afghanistan, that I first saw the Prowlers in action. I remember asking the Army PAO there whether I could do a story about the fact that EA-6Bs were deployed there the first time Id seen such aircraft in The Stan.

The PAO looked me straight in the eye and said, what Prowlers?

I countered: Those four sitting right there next to the 160th birds (referring to the imposing, black-painted spec ops MH-47s lined up along the tarmac).

There are no Prowlers here, he said, making me think of the famous Obi Wan line these are not the droids youre looking for

There are no Prowlers here, is said robotically.

For nearly two years I and other reporters I know who knew wanted to tell this story. At one point, a colleague of mine reported on the issue based on statements from a Prowler driver at a conference of Old Crows. He was quickly slapped down by his command, and the Navy pleaded with our publication to pull the story.

Later, in Iraq, it was known as banging trons. Prowlers would orbit during night patrols, using their powerful electronic jamming gear to run through the spectrum in hopes of detonating IEDs while bomb layers were planting them. This was known to happen on more than a few occasions.


*Hot!* Raptor Update *Hot!*

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

This just in:

WASHINGTON (AP)- The Air Force says it’s correcting technological glitches in roughly 87 F-22 Raptor fighter jets.

The computer systems on six of the aircraft were disabled earlier this month during a flight from Hawaii to Japan.

An Air Force colonel says the stealth fighter jets were participating in an inaugural 12-hour test flight to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa when a “navigation anomaly” occurred.

The computer glitch happened as the aircraft crossed the international date line. It crippled navigation systems and hindered communications.

The Air Force says one pilot was able to contact contractor Lockheed Martin to troubleshoot the error during the flight.

Several pilots attempted to reboot the system with no success and returned to Hawaii with the help of aerial refueling tankers as a safety precaution.

(Copyright 2007 Associated Press.)

Okay, that’s it. Carry out the plan of the day.

That Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Jet …

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007


A recent transpac crippled six F-22s as they made their way from Hawaii to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. The culprit: The International Date Line.

When the fighters crossed the line, all of their computer systems went Tango Uniform — fuel subsystems, navigation, and some of the comms.

We turn to CNN’s John Roberts and retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd for expert commentary on the matter:

ROBERTS: Twenty five years from development to deployment, the F-22 Raptor is the most advanced fighting machine in the air. But it was no match for a computer glitch that left six of them high above the Pacific Ocean, deaf, dumb and blind as they headed to their first deployment. So what happened? We turn to a man who’s at home in the cockpit, Retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd. Don, let me set the scene. These F-22s, eight of them, were headed from Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii to an Air Force base in Japan. They were approaching the international date line, pick it up from there.


SHEPPERD: You got it right, John. You want everything to go right with your frontline fighter, $125, $135 million to copy. The F-22 Raptor is our frontline fighter, air defense, air superiority. It also can drop bombs. It is stealthy. It’s fast and you want it all to go right on your first deployment to the Pacific and it didn’t. At the international date line, whoops, all systems dumped and when I say all systems, I mean all systems, their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were — they could have been in real trouble. They were with their tankers. The tankers — they tried to reset their systems, couldn’t get them reset. The tankers brought them back to Hawaii. This could have been real serious. It certainly could have been real serious if the weather had been bad. It turned out OK. It was fixed in 48 hours. It was a computer glitch in the millions of lines of code, somebody made an error in a couple lines of the code and everything goes.

ROBERTS: This is almost like the feared Y2K problem that happened to these aircraft. We should point out that computers control almost every aspect of this aircraft, from their weapons systems, to the flight controls and the computers absolutely went haywire, became useless.

SHEPPERD: Absolutely. When you think of airplanes from the old days, with cables and that type of thing and direct connections between the sticks and the yolks and the controls, not that way anymore. Everything is by computer. When your computers go, your airplanes go. You have multiple systems. When they all dump at the same time, you can be in real trouble. Luckily this turned out OK.

ROBERTS: What would have happened General Shepperd if these brand-new $120 million F-22s had been going into battle?

SHEPPERD: You would have been in real trouble in the middle of combat. The good thing is that we found this out. Any time — before, you know, before we get into combat with an airplane like this. Any time you introduce a new airplane, you are going to find glitches and you are going to find things that go wrong. It happens in our civilian airliners. You just don’t hear much about it but these things absolutely happen. And luckily this time we found out about it before combat. We got it fixed with tiger teams in about 48 hours and the airplanes were flying again, completed their deployment. But this could have been real serious in combat.

ROBERTS: So basically you had these advanced air — not just superiority but air supremacy fighters that were in there, up there in the air, above the Pacific Ocean, not much more sophisticated than a little Cessna 152 only with a jet engine.

SHEPPERD: You got it. They are on a 12 to 15-hour flight from Hawaii to Okinawa, but all their systems dumped. They needed help. Had they gotten separated from their tankers or had the weather been bad, they had no attitude reference. They had no communications or navigation. They would have turned around and probably could have found the Hawaiian Islands. But if the weather had been bad on approach, there could have been real trouble. Again, you get refueling from your tankers. You don’t run — you don’t get yourself where you run out of fuel. You always have enough fuel and refueling nine, 10, 11, 12 times on a flight like this where you can get somewhere to land. But again, attitude reference and navigation are essential as is communication. In this case all of that was affected. It was a serious problem.

ROBERTS: So the fact the computers run so much of the systems on these aircraft, General Shepperd, is the — is the military at risk of over engineering here so if they did have a problem like that when they were going into a hostile situation, they could be, as you said, repeatedly in real trouble?

SHEPPERD: Well, you have redundant systems but it’s just a fact of life in the modern computer age. By the way John, you are going to have the same problem coming up on your laptop computer as we conferred from — from standard time from daylight savings time to standard time. Your program — your computer is programmed for one thing and we have changed the dates and you are going to have a problem. It’s going to have to be dealt with.

ROBERTS: Do me a favor Don. Make sure I’m not on my laptop computer when I’m flying in an F-22 on that day.

SHEPPERD: Absolutely.

And make sure you don’t try to conduct any strikes across the International Date Line. One side or the other, war planners; one side or the other.

Full report at DailyTech.

– Ward