But its significance to the Australian Defence Force is that this aircraft has teeth—the technology to disrupt, deceive and deny opposing radar and communications systems, and thereby reduce the risk faced by Australian forces in the field.
“Through its jamming pods, the Growler can disrupt military electronic systems, to protect our personnel and to improve our situational awareness,” said Defence Minister Marise Payne with a momentarily tamed Growler at rest behind her on the tarmac. Daenerys Targaryen eat your heart out.
“This is a beast!” said Air Force Chief, Air Marshal Leo Davies, who emphasised that the coming months would be devoted to integrating the Growler’s dedicated electronic-attack capabilities in support of Australia’s approaching Air Warfare Destroyer capabilities, in support of the Air Force’s 6 E-7A Wedgetail airborne battlespace-management craft, in support of the Army’s armed reconnaissance helicopters and the Navy’s Seahawk Romeo helicopter swarm.
“I expect this aeroplane to spend more time flying with the Army and the Navy than it does flying with the Air Force,” he said referring to the Air Force’s overarching Plan Jericho—to deliver a networked future joint defence force.
Australia is the only country outside the US to deploy the Growler technology, and Tom Bell, Boeing’s senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Defense, Space and Security, pledged the company’s dedicated support of the RAAF Growlers: “To keep these aircraft flying affordably, we have a great sustainment plan in place... Boeing Defence Australia, which is part of our 3,500-strong Australian presence, will work side by side with our industry partners, from General Electric, Northrop Grumman Australia, Raytheon Australia, Airspeed and Pacific Aerospace to ensure the mission readiness of the Growler fleet.
The Growler is … “very much a surgical aircraft in terms of us being able to define what effect we want on the battlefield.” Air Marshal Leo Davies
“The introduction of Growler is a key milestone in transforming the Air Force into a fifth-generation fighting force,” said Payne. “It was an enormous pleasure to see it fly in.”
The pilots corroborated their pleasure in bringing the Growler to Australian soil. More than a dozen Australians pilots have spent around three years training with the US Navy from a base at the country’s premiere naval aviation installation on Whidbey Island, Washington, where they’ve practiced wielding the Growler capabilities.
Says Flight Lieutenant Todd Woodford, “I’ve been on a personnel exchange program, so I integrated into the US Navy air squadron. It’s been awesome—we learned a lot about flying the Growler and now get to leverage all the experience the US Navy has.”
Woodford was among the pilots tasked with flying the advance group of four Growlers—a further eight will arrive by mid-year—across the Pacific, island hopping from Whidbey to Hawaii to Guam, to touch down for the first time at Queensland’s Amberley Air Force base, near Ipswich, on February 21.
Despite the discomforts of flying in an uncushioned fighter-jet seat for long stretches without cabin service or inflight menus, the Growler delivery assignment was highly sought after: “Well, everyone wanted to do it,” says Woodford, “Thankfully, by flying the three legs and with the number of people in our squadron, we got to rotate around and share!”
He adds, “Across the Pacific it was quite nice. It was intermittent clouds, so at times we could see the small islands we were flying over.”
Still, there was nothing casual about this non-combat operation: The group flew in formation, following a mission plan and accompanied by an air-refuelling tanker to top up the tanks without touching the ground between stops. “The Growlers have a reasonable range for a tactical jet aircraft, but you still need to refuel to get all the way across and to have a margin of safety in case of an emergency, so we have plenty of fuel to be able to divert.”
Of the GE F414-400 engines that power the Growlers, Woodford says, “They’ve been reliable. I’ve never had one fail.”
Woodford has not flown an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which shares a basic airframe with the Growler, but he says the differences between the two aircraft lie more in the missions they fly than in their flight capabilities. “The Super Hornet is doing fighter and attack missions, air to air and air to ground, shooting weapons and dropping bombs. The Growler, while it can shoot air-to-air weapons and air-to-surface missiles, is more focused on electronic warfare.”
“We’re always looking to update the software and integrate new weapons systems on the aircraft, so we’re always learning, always practicing and developing new tactics.” RAAF Flt Lt Todd Woodford
In welcoming the aircraft, Payne also announced Australia’s new partnership with the United States in developing a next-generation radar and radio jammer for the Growler. “This is a $250 million investment that will futureproof the Growler’s capability. Electronic warfare is a rapidly evolving area and we want to ensure that these aircraft remain at the technological forefront throughout their service life.”
These kinds of enhancements and potential extra load will continue to be reliably carried by GE’s evolving F414-400 engines. Currently in development, the F414 Enhanced Engine upgrade provides an extra 18% thrust, an improved rate of climb and increased horsepower extraction to supply the electrical demands of ever more advanced weapons systems.
Asked whether the investment in a new anti-jamming suite for an already cutting-edge defence-force tool was defensible, Air Marshal Davies replied, “From having knives and black powder, bows and arrows, we’ve evolved as militaries to be able to counter the threat, and indeed, where we can, to be in front of it. That evolution is a quite necessary one. Those potential adversaries are not standing still; they themselves are evolving and we must as well.”
Read more about the Growler technology here.