Congress should preserve our edge in electronic warfare

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When you think of fighter jets, you might think of barrel rolls, nosedives, and Maverick locking on to his target. But what about disrupting radars, jamming enemy communications or quarterbacking the electronic attack game plan? That might seem more “James Bond” than “Top Gun,” but these are the next-generation capabilities that are beginning to define the air battles of the future.

Unfortunately, budget cuts now threaten to shut down America’s most advanced electronic warfare aircraft, the EA-18G Growler, even though there is an emerging requirement for 50 to 100 additional aircraft. A lack of these aircraft will cede the new electronic battlefield to our adversaries and expose American aircraft to even the simplest enemy weapons.

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With cutting edge electronics fitted inside the airframe of the combat-proven Super Hornet fighter jet, the Growler can listen for and then jam any radar or sensor trying to pick up American aircraft. By jamming the sensors and attacking the computer networks that connect them, the Growler creates an electronic fog around American aircraft, keeping them safe from surface-to-air missiles or enemy fighters. The Growler’s formidable electronic attack capabilities can also disable enemy communications and networks.

The Growlers are required escorts for nearly every combat mission now and through 2040. Yet, unless Congress provides funding for this critical military asset in the current budget, the Growler production line will close well before producing the 50 to 100 additional aircraft the military needs.

Not only would prematurely shuttering the Growler production line severely degrade national security, but it would also deal a heavy blow to our strategic manufacturing capabilities. Only two American companies are currently capable of building a fighter jet from start to finish. With the end of the Growler/Super Hornet, only one would be left. Without competition, the Pentagon would lose cost pressure and capability innovation, when it tries to procure the next generation of superior fighter jets or electronic warfare planes. And it will mean thousands of quality jobs lost in our critical aerospace industry — one of the crown jewels of our economy.

More than 100 representatives from many of the aerospace companies that build the Growler have traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to talk with their elected representatives. They’re explaining the Growler’s critical capabilities and the strategic importance of the jobs that are at stake in their communities. They’re talking about how important it is to maintain competition and diversity in our defense industry.

But aerospace companies don’t need to make the case for the Growler. Military leaders have said it’s one of the most important aircraft in our fleet. Naval commanders have called it a “game-changing” aircraft. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, has stated that additional Growlers are an unmet priority for the Department of Defense, and it is included on his “unfunded priorities” list. 

In today’s tough economy, we might not be able to afford the full complement of Growlers we need right now, but by including additional aircraft in the current budget, Congress can keep meeting the Navy’s unfunded priority and preserve the option to purchase more of these critical aircraft in the years to come — when we will most certainly need them.

Wagner has represented Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District since 2013. She sits on the Financial Services Committee.