The US Navy Wants Its EA-18G Growlers to Drop Canisters With Drones Tucked Inside

Northrop Grumman says the U.S. Navy is interested in giving its EA-18G Growler jamming aircraft the ability to use modified cluster bomb canisters to deploy and control their own drone swarms to launch broader electronic attacks and collect signals intelligence data. Any fighter jet or bomber could conceivably carry the disposable unmanned aircraft, referred to both as Dash X and Remedy, as well, which might be able to take on covert surveillance and even strike duties in the future.

On Oct. 26, 2017, Northrop Grumman conducted a flight test of the drone at Foothills Regional Airport in Morganton, North Carolina, but launched it from the ground rather than a canister attached to another aircraft. Once the Dash X was in flight, a modified de Havilland Dash-8 twin engine turboprop then successfully established a link to the drone, directing its activities and processing electronic signal information the unmanned aircraft was collecting. The next phase of the project will be to demonstrate the complete airdrop concept, which involves a cluster bomb-like shell containing one of the pilotless planes.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Naval Air Systems Command’s F/A-18 and EA-18G program office, and the Office of Secretary of Defense are supporting the Virginia-headquartered defense contractor’s work on the Dash X, which has a wingspan of 12 feet, a top speed of just 70 miles per hour, and can fly for approximately 10 hours. The small aviation firm VX Aerospace, which specializes in composite materials and is also involved in the program, initially developed the drone in partnership with North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina as part of an earlier ONR-funded project.

The Navy appears most interested in adding this drone “bomb” to its Block II upgrade program for the EA-18G, John Thompson, Northrop Grumman’s campaign director for the company’s airborne command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) division, told reporters during a tour of a facility near Baltimore, Maryland. “I think that long-range teaming is where the highest probability of fielding this is going to go,” he added.

A US Navy EA-18G Growler, which could carry and then team up with air-dropped Dash X drones., USN

Though Thompson did not elaborate on exactly how the Navy was considering blending the Growlers and Dash X together, it’s not hard to imagine the two aircraft working as a manned-unmanned team. The drone could extend the range and breadth of EA-18G’s capabilities, fanning out and searching for enemy radars, communication nodes, and other electronic signal emitters.

The goal is obviously to feed at least basic information back to the controlling aircraft to help the crew find and prioritize targets and just give them a better sense of the overall battlefield environment and its electronic order of battle. Depending on the equipment that can fit inside a single Dash X, it might be able to act as a decoy, generating signals that make it look like a larger threat to air defense systems, or even conduct their own distributed electronic or cyber attacks, as well.

“We did a demonstration where these [the Dash X] flew forward, looked for an unlocated RF [radio frequency] object, they went out and they found that vehicle,” Thompson told the assembled journalists. “They listened for the whispering and they pulled it back to this test airframe and they were able to detect, identify, and geolocate.”

And though Northrop Grumman hasn’t yet settled on a final design, the company provided a picture of a mockup of the bomb-like shell looks almost identical to the U.S. military’s standardized SUU-64/B, -65/B and -66/B Tactical Munitions Dispensers, which can hold variety of different cluster munitions. According to Northrop Grumman, after release from the aircraft, whatever the eventual container used will be, it will break open and the Dash X will fall out, slowed by a parachute before its wings unfold and its motor starts.

A Tactical Munition Dispenser, a modified version of which might be able to hold a single Dash X drone., US Army

Using a modified cluster munition would make it relatively easy to load the system onto existing aircraft such as the EA-18G. It also means that a single aircraft would be able to carry more than one Dash X at a time, deploying swarms of unmanned aircraft that would be able to better monitor a certain zone for threats or faster search for particular points of interest across a broader area.

“We’ll send in these as a swarm,” Thompson explained. “They’ll begin to do search patterns for where we believe — in this general area is — this object that we are searching for. Could be [searching for] theatre ballistic missile, long range engagement radar, short-range engagement radar.”

Northrop Grumman is also pitching the air-dropped Dash X concept as a way for aircraft, such as the non-stealthy F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets and EA-18Gs in the Navy’s carrier air wings, to conduct electronic warfare and intelligence gathering missions deep into denied territory full of networked air defenses. There’s no reason a low-observable aircraft, such as the F-35 with its already potentially impressive ability to vacuum up electronic signal data, couldn’t carry them, as well.

Thompson said that the drone’s small size and slow speed mean it has reduced radar and acoustic signatures that make it hard for opponents to spot on radar and difficult to quickly identify as a military drone. Even if they did see it on their radar screens, they might be inclined to dismiss the slow moving drone as something else entirely non-threatening.

Below is video of another air-launched drone swarm test that the Department of Defense conducted in 2016, which you can read about in more detail here.

“How does a company go from making B-21s to this?” Thompson posed to reporters. “It is actually survivable because it is absolutely so slow and so small, when you think about how military systems are designed, they’re designed to shoot down tactical jets and you actually build into radars gates that take away things just as birds.”

Dash X is supposed to be able to fly high enough to be out of sight and earshot of personnel on the ground, but still low and slow enough as to not attract attention on radar. In additional to the electronic warfare systems, Thompson said it could carry electro-optical cameras, which could send a video feed back to a controlling aircraft or other friendly personnel in near real time.

It might also be able to do so on the cheap, especially compared to more advanced manned and unmanned stealth aircraft, something Northrop Grumman already has significant experience with. In addition to the present B-2 Spirit and future B-21 Raider stealth bombers, the firm has also reportedly built a high-flying, long range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drone, the RQ-180, specifically to covertly gather information deep inside denied regions, and other classified projects.

Unfortunately, the small size of the Dash X drone also limits how far it can fly and how long it can loiter over a particular area. The air-dropped “bomb” is supposed to help mitigate this issue, since a manned aircraft could carry it closer to the target area.

A US Air Force F-16 carrying a pair of Tactical Munition Dispensers, another platform that could potentially launch and pair up with Dash X drones., Lockheed Martin

Taken together, these capabilities open up the possibility for the Dash X taking on additional mission sets beyond just supporting the Navy’s Growlers. In particular, the system could help give carrier air wings some semblance of capability they might have otherwise gained from the Navy’s now cancelled Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, program.

This effort sought to develop a stealthy, deep penetrating drone capable of both intelligence gathering and strike missions in denied areas that could take off and land from an aircraft carrier. The US Navy had extensively tested a pair of experimental Northrop Grumman X-47B drones as part of an initial technology demonstration program that was supposed to lead into the larger UCLASS project. The service is now looking to buy a tanker drone with a limited, secondary surveillance capability, to extend the range of its Super Hornets instead. The air-dropped Dash X is significantly smaller and less capable, but could offer the Navy a different kind of tool for penetrating into heavily defended regions.

The Northrop Grumman’s X-47B carrier-launched drone technology demonstrator., USN

The complete system might be able to take on more novel roles in the future, too. Thompson said that the Navy’s present plan was to focus on a drone that could carry electronic warfare systems and other sensors, but that it might be possible to arm Dash X in the future to be able to attack targets on its own. It might even make sense to morph the drone into a covert loitering munition.

Manned aircraft could then drop swarms of Dash X drones with explosive payloads to fly orbits around certain areas, unbeknownst to the enemy, ready to strike at exactly the right moment, whether the target was the crew of a road-mobile ballistic missile transporter-erector-launcher or a terrorist leader in their car. American special operations forces have already reportedly stepped up their use of man-portable loitering munitions, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade.

Northrop Grumman’s proposal isn’t without potential pitfalls, though. Regardless of whether Thompson’s comments about the potential for Dash X to slip by enemy radars unnoticed are accurate, many countries, the United States included, are becoming increasingly more aware of the threat of small drones. In turn, there has been a surge in development of new radars and associated short-range air defense systems. Small unmanned aircraft, including types readily available commercially, are only becoming more popular and common tools in conflicts around the world both for state security forces and insurgents and terrorists.

The drones also may not be entirely invisible to the naked eye. Depending on how low it has to fly in order to best use its sensor package, enemy troops may be able to readily see it during the day. Only exceptionally large birds, such as the California condor, have anything approaching a 12-foot wingspan. They don’t dangle from parachutes, even briefly, either, but the idea is probably to launch this well outside of the target area.

A modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle, festooned with radars, jammers, and surface-to-air missiles, that BAE Systems is pitching to the US Army as a new short-range air-defense system., Joseph Trevithick

And unless the launching aircraft is also a low observable design, it may have to release the drones from safely outside an enemy air defense net. Depending on how far inside the denied area the target or targets might be this could then significant limit Dash X’s ability to offer persistent coverage of a particular point or reduce the time it has to search around.

Still, as a disposable system, Dash X could be relatively low cost in its final form, which might help mitigate some of these issues. Replacing the air-dropped “bomb” idea with a dispenser containing a drone fitted inside an air- or surface-launched cruise missile or glide weapon could give the concept extra stand-off distance.

Even if they detect the drone swarm, an enemy force might find themselves overwhelmed and unable to shoot down some or all of the unmanned aircraft before they can grab any important imagery or other intelligence information. This is one the main benefits of a swarming concept to begin with.

There’s no guarantee that the Navy or any other service will even decide to turn the experiment into a fully fledged acquisition effort. ONR has already been experimenting with swarms of small, disposable drones for some time. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are also heavily invested in researching the potential applications of swarms and manned-unmanned teaming more broadly. The results of the Dash X tests could end up as part of that growing corpus of basic research data to support future developments.

As it stands now, Northrop Grumman still has to prove its basic concept works and it can drop the Dash X out of a modified cluster bomb.

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