Thinking Tech

Hack attack: Navy's next-gen airborne jammer

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With "network invasion" abilities, the Navy's Next Generation Jammer will do more than just disrupt communications.

Airborne jammers are an invaluable tool for the military, but they are fairly blunt instruments. The plane that the Navy currently uses for most of its jamming duties, the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, is described by its maker as having a fairly predictable set of abilities:

The Prowler's primary role is to protect fleet surface units and strike aircraft by jamming enemy radar and communications. The secondary mission includes electronic surveillance.

And that's what it's been doing, since 1971: screwing with radar systems in a support capacity, like a sort of target electromagnetic noisemaker. Its technological payload is long overdue for an upgrade, as is the plane that carries it--something the Department of Defense is well aware of, and is taking action to address. Just this month, in fact, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his intentions to accelerate development of a "new generation of electronic jammers."

What he's talking about is the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) development program, an initiative to create new jamming technology to be carried by F-18, EA-18 Growler and F-35 jets. Primarily, this program is intended to bring basic jamming capabilities up to date, and to design equipment suitable for newer generations of planes. (The EA-6B is four decades old.

(But a secondary (and much more interesting) capability of these new jammers is something called network invasion--a technique by which actually hijacks enemy communications systems, rather than just interfering with them.

Aviation Week, via Danger Room, reports that the NGJ will include tools similar to those tested as part of an Air Force/BAE effort that demonstrated its first effective capabilities over five years ago. The program is called Suter, and its capabilities, according to an Aviation Week piece written soon after the third version of the technology was demonstrated, are impressive:

Suter 1 allowed U.S. operators to monitor what enemy radars could see. The capability enables U.S. forces to assess the effectiveness of their stealth systems or terrain-masking tactics. Suter 2 permits U.S. operators to take control of enemy networks as system managers and actually manipulate the sensors, steering them away from penetrating U.S. aircraft. Suter 3 was tested last summer to add the ability to invade the links to time-critical targets, such as battlefield ballistic missile launchers or mobile surface-to-air missile launchers.

This represents a fundamental shift in the role of jamming technology, from an reactive tool that allows other pilots to carry out a mission more easily, to an active tool capable of disabling--and potentially controlling--enemy facilities.

Technology in the same vein as the NGJ has already been deployed, to apparent success. In 2007, Isreali bombers destroyed a Syrian nuclear materials site, without triggering any alarms in the country's Russian-designed air defense system. How? By "directing data streams" into the missile defense systems emitters, the Israelis were able to "invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen."

Less jamming, more hacking; less blunt physical force, more digital finesse: this is actually pretty good indicator as to where all military hardware is moving in the future.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure