Battlespace Tech

Combat Shield teams prepare aircraft for electronic warfare threats

AF Combat Shield EW testing 

A Combat Shield crew leader simulates radar emissions to test the sensitivity of a Strike Eagle’s threat detection systems.

As the Air Force prepares for missions in more contested environments, crews of electronic warfare airmen are making sure that aircrafts’ EW systems are in good shape, as part of a program Combat Shield.

In a recently concluded set of tests, for example, airmen from the 16th Electronic Warfare Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., tested the radar systems of fighters at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

"The goal of Combat Shield is getting information to higher level decision-makers so they can decide what changes need to be made—funding, training, equipment—to ensure that we're putting the best equipment forward," Maj. Kyle Schlewinsky, the 16th’s assistant director of operations, said in an Air Force release. "Really, the end result is some guy strapping that jet on and flying into combat. We want to give our pilots the greatest odds possible of coming home."

The exercises provided operational combat units a system-specific assessment for aircraft radar warning receivers, electronic attack pods and integrated electronic warfare systems.   

Combat Shield is Air Combat Command’s answer to the “Spectrum Interference Resolution Program” that mandates major commands have independent EW system evaluation programs. Combat Shield teams travel about 185 days a year, driving some 14,000 miles as they test EW systems for more than 20 Air Force wings.

At Seymour Johnson AFB, the team teams tested ALR-56C Radar Warning Receiver Systems outfitted on F-15E Strike Eagles to ensure they are prepared for any type of threat. The system is the Strike Eagle’s primary threat detector.   

Those systems could become even more important as the type of threats the Air Force faces change. "For the past decade or more, we've been focused on Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, which is uncontested close-air support," Schlewinsky said. "In uncontested airspace, our aircrews aren't really worried about radar-guided surface-to-air and air-to-air threats."

This is a sentiment expressed by many leaders in the Air Force. “Eighty percent of our airmen came in after 9/11” and there has been such an intense focus in the last 14 years on high-value terrorist targets in the Middle East that other aspects have been neglected, Air Force Maj. Gen. Linda R. Urrutia-Varhall, assistant deputy chief of Staff, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, said at a recent AFCEA luncheon. The Air Force is now adjusting to new threats. 

“[Electronic warfare is] another program that I think we stepped away from,” Urrutia-Varhall told Defense Systems. It’s something that the force ignored for a while, but officials know they need, “especially in the [anti-access, area denial] fight,” she said, adding that Russia and China are engaged in this domain—and the Russians in particular do it very well. 

“If you look at what our adversaries are doing, our potential adversaries are doing out there, electronic warfare is a key component of what they’re trying to do to us,” Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Despite the fact that Carlisle said he thinks about EW in “every one of my mission sets,” he also noted that there was not a lot of emphasis on it for a while because it was not a factor in the air domain in Iraq or Afghanistan.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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