Airborne Electronic Attack:

Achieving Mission Objectives Depends on Overcoming Acquisition Challenges

GAO-12-175: Published: Mar 29, 2012. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense’s (DOD) evolving strategy for meeting airborne electronic attack requirements centers on acquiring a family of systems, including traditional fixed wing aircraft, low observable aircraft, unmanned aerial systems, and related mission systems and weapons. DOD analyses dating back a decade have identified capability gaps and provided a basis for service investments, but budget realities and lessons learned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have driven changes in strategic direction and program content. Most notably, DOD canceled some acquisitions, after which the services revised their operating concepts for airborne electronic attack. These decisions saved money, allowing DOD to fund other priorities, but reduced the planned level of synergy among systems during operations. As acquisition plans have evolved, capability limitations and sustainment challenges facing existing systems have grown, prompting the department to invest in system improvements to mitigate shortfalls.

DOD is investing in new airborne electronic attack systems to address its growing mission demands and to counter anticipated future threats. However, progress acquiring these new capabilities has been impeded by developmental and production challenges that have slowed fielding of planned systems. Some programs, such as the Navy’s EA-18G Growler and the Air Force’s modernized EC-130H Compass Call, are in stable production and have completed significant amounts of testing. Other key programs, like the Navy’s Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile, have required additional time and funding to address technical challenges, yet continue to face execution risks. In addition, certain systems in development may offer capabilities that overlap with one another—a situation brought on in part by DOD’s fragmented urgent operational needs processes. Although services have shared technical data among these programs, they continue to pursue unique systems intended to counter similar threats. As military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan decrease, opportunities exist to consolidate current acquisition programs across services. However, this consolidation may be hampered by DOD’s acknowledged leadership deficiencies within its electronic warfare enterprise, including the lack of a designated, joint entity to coordinate activities. Furthermore, current and planned acquisitions will not fully address materiel-related capability gaps identified by DOD—including some that date back 10 years. Acquisition program shortfalls will exacerbate these gaps.

To supplement its acquisition of new systems, DOD is undertaking other efforts to bridge existing airborne electronic attack capability gaps. In the near term, services are evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures for existing systems to enable them to take on additional mission tasks. These activities maximize the utility of existing systems and better position operators to complete missions with equipment currently available. Longer-term solutions, however, depend on DOD successfully capitalizing on its investments in science and technology. DOD has recently taken actions that begin to address long-standing coordination shortfalls in this area, including designating electronic warfare as a priority investment area and creating a steering council to link capability gaps to research initiatives. These steps do not preclude services from funding their own research priorities ahead of departmentwide priorities. DOD’s planned implementation roadmap for electronic warfare offers an opportunity to assess how closely component research investments are aligned with the departmentwide priority.

Why GAO Did This Study

Airborne electronic attack involves the use of aircraft to neutralize, destroy, or suppress enemy air defense and communications systems. Proliferation of sophisticated air defenses and advanced commercial electronic devices has contributed to the accelerated appearance of new weapons designed to counter U.S. airborne electronic attack capabilities. GAO was asked to assess (1) the Department of Defense’s (DOD) strategy for acquiring airborne electronic attack capabilities, (2) progress made in developing and fielding systems to meet airborne electronic attack mission requirements, and (3) additional actions taken to address capability gaps. To do this, GAO analyzed documents related to mission requirements, acquisition and budget needs, development plans, and performance, and interviewed DOD officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD conduct program reviews for certain new, key systems to assess cost, schedule, and performance; determine the extent to which the most pressing capability gaps can be met and take steps to fill them; align service investments in science and technology with the departmentwide electronic warfare priority; and review capabilities provided by certain planned and existing systems to ensure investments do not overlap. DOD agreed with three recommendations and partially agreed with the two aimed at reducing potential overlap among systems. DOD plans to assess coordination among systems, whereas GAO sees opportunities for consolidation, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Given airborne electronic attack programmatic and threat changes since 2002, the Secretary of Defense should conduct program reviews for the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM), Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM), Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD), and Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammer (MALD-J) systems to assess cost, schedule, and performance and direct changes within these investments, as necessary.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, citing planned program reviews in 2012 of the IDECM and AARGM systems, and a planned 2014 review of the MALD and MALD-J systems. In the interim, DOD intends to continue low rate initial production of MALD-J units, which may warrant an earlier review. DOD also stated that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic and Tactical Systems will chair a meeting to review AARGM, IDECM, MALD, and MALD-J with the Navy and Air Force to verify progress, but it did not provide a timetable for this review.

    Recommendation: Given airborne electronic attack programmatic and threat changes since 2002, the Secretary of Defense should determine the extent to which the most pressing airborne electronic attack capability gaps can best be met-using the assets that are likely to be available-and take steps to fill any potential gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, citing plans for U.S. Strategic Command to annually assess all DOD electronic warfare capabilities -- including current requirements, current and planned future capabilities, and the supporting investment strategy -- and present this assessment to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.

    Recommendation: Given airborne electronic attack programmatic and threat changes since 2002, the Secretary of Defense should align service investments in science and technology with the departmentwide electronic warfare priority, recognizing that budget realities will likely require trade-offs among research areas, and direct changes, as necessary.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, stating that it expects planned implementation roadmaps for priority areas (including electronic warfare) will serve to coordinate component investments and accelerate the development and delivery of capabilities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that investments in airborne electronic attack systems are cost-effective and to prevent unnecessary overlap, the Secretary of Defense should review the capabilities provided by the Marine Corps's Intrepid Tiger II and Army's Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance and Reconnaissance (CEASAR) systems and identify opportunities for consolidating these efforts, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, citing plans for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic and Tactical Systems to review the Intrepid Tiger and CEASAR systems with the Marine Corps to investigate the efficacy of additional coordination as future acquisition plans are evaluated. DOD, however, did not state that this review would include assessments of potential unnecessary redundancies within this set of systems.

    Recommendation: To ensure that investments in airborne electronic attack systems are cost-effective and to prevent unnecessary overlap, the Secretary of Defense should assess Air Force and Navy plans for developing and acquiring new expendable jamming decoys, specifically those services' respective MALD-J and Airborne Electronic Attack Expendable initiatives, to determine if these activities should be merged.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, citing plans for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics; Office of the Director, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation; and Joint Staff to review Air Force and Navy plans and assess opportunities for coordination among the MALD-J and Airborne Electronic Attack Expendable initiatives. DOD, however, did not state that this review would include assessments of potential unnecessary redundancies within this set of systems.

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