Electronic warfare is all the rage these days, and Chinese weapons are packed with electronics. With the unveiling of the newest Chinese weapons platform, here are some similarities and differences between the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) Shenyang J-16D.
China began development on the Shenyang J-16 multirole strike fighter in the mid-2010s. Based on the Chinese version of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27, China took the jet, license-produced it as the J-11, then developed that into the J-16 strike jet, which was introduced into the PLAAF in 2015.
Fast forward to 2021, when the Chinese debuted the Shenyang J-16D at the Zhuhai airshow on September 28. Built off the J-16 platform, the J-16D is a twin-seat, twin-engine, multirole fighter, with “advanced” electronic warfare capabilities. Quotation marks are used because, as with many Chinese weapons and systems, there are no real indications yet that the aircraft performs as expected.
The J-16 standard model comes equipped with wingtip-mounted missile rails, a 30mm cannon, and mounted infrared imaging cameras. On display in Zhuhai, the 16D variant, tail number 0109, has swapped the missile rails for pods, removed the cannon and IR camera, and has two added pods at stations under the engines. Those pods likely contain electronic warfare capabilities. It is believed that the pods are similar to the EA-18G’s electronic warfare package. Though the cannon has been removed, the Chinese fighter still acts as a weapon, most likely capable of carrying mounted missiles, much like the EA-18G.
The U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler is the successor to the EA-6B Prowler, the Navy and Marine Corps’ purpose-built electronic warfare craft. Developed in the 1960s, the EA-6B was an Electronic Warfare (EW) workhorse for naval forces for almost 60 years. First deployed in Vietnam, the Prowler also flew missions in Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, even acting as an airborne counter-IED platform, jamming remote signals used to detonate Improvised Explosive Devices. Now, the EA-18G has picked up this mission.
The Growler and the Super Hornet
The EA-18G was developed in the early 2000s, entering service with the Navy in 2009. Based on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Growler is a highly specialized platform meant to be the cutting-edge EW and counter-EW aircraft of the future. Similar to the J-16D, the Growler took the Super Hornet airframe, stripped it down, and added electronic-warfare capabilities. Retaining the same basic flight characteristics of the Super Hornet, the Growler can act in tandem with the Super Hornet, performing escort and standoff jamming during attack missions.
The Growler’s mission set is to act as an electronic attack platform and suppressor of enemy air defenses. Its toolkit comes in the form of AN/ALQ-218 EW receivers, AN/ALQ-227 communications countermeasures, and ALQ-99 jamming pods. The receivers have the ability to pinpoint enemy radar sites, detect radar-guided missiles, and direct the ALQ-99 to jam them. ALQ-227 listens for, pinpoints, and jams enemy communications. While the explanation is over-simplified, the rudiments are solid. Not only does the Growler protect itself in this way, but it also acts as overwatch for escorted F/A-18, and other aircraft in the area of operations.
Joint Service Operations
With no other aircraft in the niche role that the Growler fills, the Navy and Air Force have teamed up to jam together. As part of the Joint Airborne Electronic Attack program, the Air Force and Navy jointly fly the Growler. Originally working together on the EA-6B, members of the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron have transitioned to the EA-18G in a joint-service program that puts Navy and AF electronic warfare officers together. Cross-service communication and collaboration give operators from both branches invaluable experience, and this may be key to future operations against Chinese aircraft over the Indo-Pacific region.
Chinese Electronic Warfare Weapons Against Taiwan
China’s aggression in the Pacific has only grown bolder. With PLAAF aircraft flying over Taiwanese airspace, Japan constantly scrambling to intercept Chinese aircraft over the East China Sea, and Russia and China conducting joint bomber patrols, the PLAAF threat cannot be ignored. China obviously wants control over much of the Indo-Pacific region. With an aircraft like the J-16D, Chinese pilots can conceivably blind Taiwanese defenses as part of an invasion or in a show of force. Considering the Taiwanese Air Force is outfitted with predominantly Cold War-era aircraft and technology, if its defenses are swept away the U.S. would be forced to make a world-changing decision.
But Are They Capable?
Both the Chinese J-16D and the American EA-18G are capable weapons and appear to provide powerful electronic warfare capabilities. The biggest difference between them now is that Growlers are already in operation.
Both appear to have defensive and offensive capabilities. The Growler can carry two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, two AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs), and/or two AGM-154 joint standoff weapons (JSOWs). Depending on the mission profile, the Growler can defend itself, ground troops, or take the fight to ground-based communication and radar systems.
The J-16D has only just been unveiled for the world to see. Close-lipped as the Chinese military is, all we have to go on now is speculation. Similar pods to what the Growler has, coupled with a shorter nose than the base model J-16, hint at similar EW characteristics. Much the same way the Xian H-20 bomber has similar characteristics to the B-2 and B-21, the Chinese military complex again provides a lot of hype and speculation, but still no clear indication of capability.
In 2014, the Royal Australian Air Force ordered 12 EA-18Gs under a foreign military sales agreement. This means the U.S. and Australia are the only countries currently operating the Growler. As part of a memorandum of understanding between the two nations, the RAAF and U.S. Navy are collaborating to develop next-gen jamming capabilities. With Australia much closer to China, its capabilities may be key in the region, and the RAAF and Navy working together can only strengthen American presence there.
No matter the capabilities of China, the U.S. and its Pacific allies continually work together to mitigate the growing threat.