The in-flight capability of the RAAF’s new fleet of 12 EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft is to disrupt, deceive and deny enemy radar systems and communications; on the ground, the strategy for maintaining these GE-powered Boeing mission leaders is to buddy up—work with trusted partners to ensure reliability and availability.
The Department of Defence this month announced a $232 million extension to bring the Growlers under the wing of a GE contract that keeps Classic Hornet and Super Hornet engines fighting fit.
In campaigns such as Operation Okra, the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) contribution to international forces fighting terrorism in Iraq and Syria, the Australian Air Task Group comprises Hornets, Super Hornets, E-7A Wedgetail and KC-30A tanker aircraft—all GE powered.
The Growler will provide a huge capability upgrade—to fly ahead of the conventional fleet and scramble communications. “It’s almost the opposite of stealth,” says Adam Watterson, regional sales director for GE Aviation’s Military Systems. “You’re going in with a whole bunch of sensors and jammers and actively carpeting the area with different signals, so you’re denying enemy comms such as weapons systems and radar, taking them off the air while your main force comes in behind.”
GE supplies and services the F414-400 engines that power these mission forerunners. In total, the fleet will have 84 F414-400s, including extras that allow aircraft to continue to fly even as engines are sent back to RAAF Base Amberley in Australia for servicing.
“We’ve had a long relationship with GE, since December 2008, which we highly value,” says Air Commodore Greg Hoffmann, director general of RAAF Air Combat Systems. “The key elements of that have been the standing availability and reliability for our combat engine fleet—it’s really focused around the engines. And GE has done a wonderful job of supporting us both at home base in Raise, Train and Sustain operations, and away during the increased tempo of Operation Okra—it’s been a seamless transition.”
Under its current contract with the RAAF, GE and its depot partner, TAE Gas Turbines, a Queensland-based services company, have provided total logistics support for the ADF’s Classic Hornets and Super Hornets. Engines that require repair on the front line are repaired by the Air Force with parts and engineering support provided by GE—“Our technicians actually turn the spanners,” says Hoffman. Engines scheduled for maintenance are flown back to Australia and resupplied as need arises.
Performance-based metrics show that for the past five years GE has met or exceeded program service and delivery requirements. “We’re proud that the customer relies on us to play such a key role in providing this frontline capability,” says Watterson.
“In the deployments at the moment we’ve got constant rotations of Hornets and Super Hornets going through the Middle East,” he adds. Other aircraft in the RAAF fleet, such as tanker aircraft and airborne early-warning craft also rely on GE engines.
“The catalyst for extending this contract was the delivery of the Growler aircraft early in 2017,” says Hoffmann. “We expanded the scope of the contract to add the Growler engines, and at the same time extended the contract until 2025.”
Watterson may be stating the obvious when he says, “There’ll be a lot of buzz around the Growlers actually arriving in the country next year.” Australia is the only nation outside the US to have Growler capabilities. And as the aircraft’s abilities are advanced, the F414-400 Enhanced Engine, currently in development, will easily power those requirements.
The F414 Enhanced Engine Upgrade provides an 18% increase in thrust, a greatly improved rate of climb, and increased horsepower extraction to supply growing electrical demand by additional sensors and weapons systems as they are added to the aircraft.
“The step change in performance from the F404 engine that powered the Hornets to the F414 is pretty incredible,” says Watterson. “The fact that there are now developments on the 414 means it will grow the capability of the Growler into the future as well.”