The German Air Force’s plan to procure an advanced U.S.-built airborne electronic attack aircraft, the EA-18G Growler, appears somewhat in doubt in the aftermath of Berlin’s decision to acquire 35 F-35As for that nation’s nuclear weapons deterrent role.
There are five reasons why Germany should still move forward with its plan to acquire the Growler. First, as the current war in Europe demonstrates, electronic warfare and the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) will be critical to a high-end fight. Second, there is no better electronic warfare aircraft in the world than the Growler. The Growler is specifically designed to conduct the full range of Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (ESO), defined as military operations designed to exploit, protect, attack, and manage the electromagnetic spectrum. Third, the marriage of the F-35A and EA-18G will give the German Air Force a more credible nuclear deterrent. Fourth, integrating German and U.S. Growlers will enhance both nations’ militaries. Fifth, there is no other affordable option that can meet the planned date for retiring the EW-capable Tornados.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has forced the nations of Europe to reassess their defense policies, military capabilities, and modernization plans. Germany has made the most dramatic shift, providing lethal aid to Ukraine, mothballing the much-anticipated Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, deploying German military units to NATO’s eastern flank, and committing to spending two percent of its GDP on defense, and creating a $113 billion fund to support military modernization.
As part of its new proposed defense spending plan, the new German government announced its intentions to acquire the F-35 stealth fighter to replace the aging jets that currently contribute to NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Germany’s participation in the nuclear deterrent mission is critical to NATO cohesion. While Berlin has yet to describe in detail how it plans to spend its additional defense resources, one smart move would to be to go ahead with existing plans to procure 15 advanced EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft from the U.S. to replace some two dozen additional aircraft currently assigned to the airborne electronic attack mission.
The EA-18G is based on the proven F/A-18 E/F platform with an array of advanced electronic warfare systems and weapons. The Growler is able to provide full-spectrum protection of friendly aircraft, conduct radar jamming, disrupt communication networks, collect signals intelligence, and directly attack air defenses. The EA-18G will also carry the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), currently in development. The NGJ is a highly sophisticated electronic warfare system with enhanced power and range compared to existing airborne jammers. It will address the proliferation of new lethal long-range air defense systems.
The decision to replace the EW variant of the Tornado with the EA-18G Growler makes sense both in its own right and as a complement to the acquisition of the F-35A. Here are five reasons why that acquisition make sense.
First, the war in Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the importance of airborne electronic warfare, communications jamming, and the SEAD mission. Russia’s ability to wreak havoc in Ukraine is the result, in part, of its ability to operate attack aircraft, helicopters, and drones. At the same time, both Russia and Ukraine are employing air defense systems of various ranges in an attempt to deny the other air superiority. Both sides have employed electronic warfare in an attempt to jam enemy communications or collect intelligence that can be used for attacking high value targets. It should come as no surprise that as the Ukraine conflict intensified, the Department of Defense sent six EA-18Gs to Europe to reinforce the Alliance’s deterrent.
Second, the Growler is the most modern, effective, and lethal airborne electronic attack platform in the world. It is capable of performing the full range of ESO in a contested environment. In its current configuration, it can employ electronic means to conduct force protection, radar jamming, and communications disruption. Employing both the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) and Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles (AARGM), the EA-18G is a highly lethal SEAD platform. The NGJ gives the Growler a high-power offensive electronic attack capability to counter advanced threats, thus filling a critical survivability gap in NATO. The Growler will enhance the effectiveness of the German Air Force’s Typhoon fighters.
Third, the combination of the unique capabilities of nuclear-capable German F-35As and EA-18Gs will enhance the credibility of the German component of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Using the Growler in its force protection role to assist the F-35, which has inherent stealthiness and onboard electronic warfare systems, the German Air Force will be able to generate a highly effective and credible deterrent response to any aggressor.
Fourth, by acquiring the Growler, the German Air Force will gain access to some 60 years’ worth of U.S experience in operating the aircraft and its predecessor, the EA-6B Prowler. As a member of the Growler community (which also includes the Royal Australian Air Force), Germany will gain access to extensive EW libraries, existing ranges, well-developed procedures, and training infrastructure to support the creation of a highly sophisticated airborne electronic warfare capability.
Fifth, only the Growler can be available in time to meet the retirement date for the German EW Tornado. There is no platform in existence today that can perform the same range of missions as the EA-18G. While there has been speculation that Germany could pursue the development of a new Electronic Attack variant of the Typhoon Eurofighter, it is doubtful that such an aircraft could be ready by 2026, when Germany needs to begin deploying a replacement for the EW Tornado.
It might be decades before another platform comparable to Growler can be built, and by that time the U.S. is likely to have developed an even more advanced EW aircraft that would render the variant of the Typhoon obsolete. In addition, it will take Germany decades and billions of dollars to replicate the EA-18G Growler capability and knowledge base. Over this same period, the U.S. will continue to improve the Growler by adding the NGJ and other capabilities.
Germany needs to make good on its commitment to strengthening its military. A good early step would be to move forward with the plan to acquire the EA-18G Growler.
Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.