This year’s Growler Ball provides an opportunity to discuss the EA-18G’s ability to launch cyber attacks and hack enemy networks.
As our readers know very well, the “Ball” series (“Hornet Ball”, “Rhino Ball”, “Strike Fighter Ball” and “Growler Ball”) is a very well known yearly compilation of the best videos filmed during the previous 365 days by U.S. Navy pilots and WSOs (Weapons Systems Officers) of “legacy” F/A-18A-D Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets (and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters), as well as EA-18G Growlers.
Actually, not only does “Growler Ball” feature the US Navy’s VAQ squadrons equipped with the Electronic Warfare/Attack variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet that replaced the EA-6B Prowlers in U.S. Navy service (i.e. the VAQ-129 Vikings; VAQ-130 Zappers; VAQ-131 Lancers; VAQ-132 Scorpions; VAQ-133 Wizards; VAQ-134 Garudas: VAQ-135 Black Ravens; VAQ-136 Gauntlets; VAQ-137 Rooks; VAQ-138 Yellowjackets; VAQ-139 Cougars; VAQ-140 Patriots; VAQ-141 Shadowhawks; VAQ-142 Gray Wolves), but it also collects contributions from the U.S. Air Force’s 390th Electronic Combat Squadron (a geographically separated U.S. Air Force unit of Mountain Home Air Force Base, working out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, where USAF pilots assigned to Navy expeditionary EA-18G squadrons operate) as well as the No. 6 Squadron in the Royal Australian Air Force.
This year’s Growler Ball features the usual stunning footage: day and night cockpit scenes, launching and recovering from aircraft carriers, flying ultra-low level, firing AGM-88 HARM missiles, refueling from “buddy” Super Hornets and from U.S. Air Force KC-135s, dogfights and trap landings (in poor visibility). All filmed with GoPros and 360° stabilized cameras.
However, there is at least one additional detail that makes Growler Ball 2020 interesting, at least to me.
At the 05:02 mark, you can see the MRAD (Master RADIATION) light up, then what is supposed to be the effect of jamming on both the camera and the target, a computer system, that consequently, crashes.
The fictional system crash was probably included in Growler Ball just because it gave an immediate, visual, idea of the devastating effects of a jamming attack, however its cameo is at least worth of remark considered that the supposed Cyber capabilities of the EA-18G have been in the talks for more than a decade.
Let’s have a look at it is once again:
Let me say it again: the scene is not real, but fits with the rest of the video quite well. The only real part is when the MRAD light becomes green, means that the pods are active. The rest was just attached to the footage to showcase the outcome of the attack. By the way, this is not even the first time some Growler footage features the MRAD light and its effects:
The effect of jamming on a camera inside the cockpit of a EA-18G Growler. Pretty strong. MRAD light = Master Radiate On pic.twitter.com/3BAPjZFArY
— David Cenciotti (@cencio4) April 12, 2017
That being said, all the sources we have inquired about the eventual ability of the Growler to “hack” or inject malware into enemy network seem to confirm that this is not a current capability.
In the past, U.S. Air Force EC-130H Compass Call aircraft have been involved in demos attacking networks from the air, a kind of mission that is far from new. In 2007, the success of Israeli Air Force’s Operation Orchard against a Syrian nuclear installation was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems. Although the details surrounding this capability are a bit fuzzy, the F-35 AESA radar could be able to do the same thing.
We have also reached out to NAVAIR to have an update on the EA-18G Growler’s Cyber Attack capabilities.
“Boeing is currently developing the Block II Growler, which will feature the Advanced Cockpit System of the Block III Super Hornet as well as improved sensors and upgraded electronic attack systems; however, those requirements are still in development, so we cannot provide further details at this time,” F/A-18 & EA-18G Program Office (PMA-265) explained us in an email.
Indeed, Boeing plans to improve the Growler’s electronic attack sensors and it is considering enhancements to Northrop Grumman’s ALQ-218 sensor system, which is used by the Growler for radar warning, electronic support measures and electronic intelligence, DefenseNews reported last year.
Although not officially confirmed, the Cyber Attack capabilities will probably be available in the future, with the Block II upgrade and the NGJ (Next Generation Jamming) pods.
The EA-18G is equipped with an airborne electronic attack (AEA) avionics suite that has evolved from the EA-6B’s Improved Capability III (ICAP III) AEA system. The EA-18G carries AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods, which are to be replaced by Next Generation Jammer jamming pods we have covered in detail in some recent articles.
The Navy states that “the EA-18G’s electronic attack upgrades meet or exceed EA-6B Airborne… Electronic Attack capability to detect, identify, locate and suppress hostile [electromagnetic] emitters; provide enhanced connectivity to National, Theater and strike assets; and provide organic precision emitter targeting for employment of onboard suppression weapons to fulfill operational requirements.”
In an article titled “A look at the US Navy’s Next Generation Jammer” published in 2018, dealing with the Cyber Warfare capabilities of the new pod, Dr Gareth Evans wrote:
The NGJ reportedly goes beyond traditional jamming too, adding signals intelligence and a communications hub capability to the more usual EW and radar tasks for the AESA array.
There have also been some reports that the system has the potential ability to launch a cyber-attack, involving inserting rogue data packets into enemy systems in a so-called “network invasion.” Such an attack is rumoured to have played a part in the 2007 Israeli ‘Operation Orchard’ raid on a nuclear plant near the eastern Syrian city of Dir A-Zur, in which BAE’s ‘Suter’ airborne network attack system was said to have shut down Syria’s Russian-made air defences.
The US Navy alluded to its interest in the idea in its 2015 ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower’, adding ‘all-domain access’ to the traditional four functions of the fleet, and according anti-access/area denial threats almost the same priority as nuclear deterrence. It would hardly come as a big surprise, then, if the reports of the new system’s additional cyber offensive capability were ultimately to turn out to be true.
Other articles, published even before 2018, mentioned the “Suter-esque” cyber attack capability to complement the EW attack capabilities of the Growler as well as its weapons giving U.S. military planners three SEAD options: jamming, bombing, and hacking.
Therefore, while the Cyber Attack is probably something coming with the NGJ pods, considered my background as a Computer Engineer specialized in Cyber Security, I’d be curious to understand a bit more about it:
is the Growler supposed to bridge the air gap and make the target network reachable even though it was supposed to be closed acting like a flying gateway? Or will the EA-18G dispense swarm of drones which, either autonomously or guided by a manned aircraft (in a loyal wingman scenario), will carry a malware designed to attack a specific target – a cyber weapon like the infamous Stuxnet, the virus that targeted the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) control systems that manage pipelines, nuclear plants and various utility and manufacturing equipment – close to the enemy network and systems?
Whatever, while we don’t know exactly when and to what extent the EA-18G will be able to launch a Cyber Attack or support it, it’s safe to say that the mere fact that this cyber capability is being developed (and probably, soon, implemented too) just confirms what we have been saying for quite some time: drones, AI (Artificial Intelligence), new cyber capabilities (and threats) are already changing the way air forces are preparing to fight future wars.