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20 June 2018

Classified Compass Call to Lead $25 Billion of Top Airborne ECM Programs

Author: Dr. David L. Rockwell, Drawn From: Military Electronics Briefing

Classified Compass Call to Lead $25 Billion of Top Airborne ECM Programs

Electronic warfare (EW) has always been important, but tends to be undervalued outside wartime. During America’s recent ground wars in Asia, billions of dollars were spent on new forms of EW – especially techniques and equipment to locate and counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and efforts to counter man-launched infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles (IR SAMs). With a pivot today to countering near-peer competitors again – especially China and Russia – billions of dollars will be spent over the next decade on new and upgraded EW programs of a more traditional nature, especially airborne radio frequency (RF) electronic countermeasures (ECM).

Teal Group forecasts funding and future business opportunities for the four biggest airborne programs of the next decade, including the US Air Force Compass Call & Compass Call Re-host, to be worth $6.8 billion in our forecast period (including much classified funding), and the US Navy’s fighter AN/ALQ-241(V) IDECM (Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures), to be worth $5.5 billion. Even bigger will be the Navy’s current/next-generation SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) EA-6B Prowler & EA-18G Growler EW (AN/ALQ-99 & -218 & -227) & AN/ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), to be worth a combined $8.4 billion. We have also added a new, speculative Future USAF Classified ECM Aircraft evaluation and funding line – forecast to be related to Compass Call – to be worth $4.3 billion.

Compass Call & Compass Call Re-host

Compass Call is a US Air Force suite of electronic countermeasures systems primarily designed to disrupt voice and data communications. Although Compass Call has been a fielded, operational capability since 1983, it continues to evolve and adapt to counter constantly changing adversary tactical communications. Recently, this has been reflected in a shift from countering traditional military communication systems to an increasing importance of commercial/civil countermeasures, such as used in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as reportedly adding a limited radar jamming capability. Compass Call is mounted aboard EC-130H Hercules aircraft.

As of late 2017, a total of 15 USAF Compass Call aircraft were in operation, earlier expected to remain in service until 2025, with all aircraft upgraded to Block 35 standard by 2008, to be followed by spiral upgrades adding new capabilities in 12- to 18-month cycles. BAE Systems (Nashua, NH) was the Prime Mission Equipment (PME) developer, L-3 Communications (Waco, TX) was aircraft integrator, and Raytheon (El Segundo, CA) also provided some subsystems.

Judging from the long list of planned RDT&E projects every year, we believed a large portion of Compass Call RDT&E funding was classified, probably under BIG SAFARI designations. Several additional funding lines appeared in DoD documents without full descriptions. Thus, our forecast has been highly speculative, and included our estimate of black funding. Our funding forecasts included both SIGINT and ECM funding.

However, in early 2015 the Air Force announced its intention to suddenly retire half the Compass Call fleet – seven aircraft. This was likely due to yet other classified new capabilities – possibly the SEAD UCAV that Teal Group has long forecast (see our UAV book…). But vested interests in Arizona attempted to prevent the partial Compass Call retirement.

Then, the Air Force instead initiated a Compass Call Re-host program (EC-X or EC-37B), intended to transfer Compass Call electronic systems to a newer, smaller, and more supportable aircraft platform. By August 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had denied protests from Bombardier and Boeing, and the Air Force awarded L-3 Technologies the “systems integrator” contract for the Compass Call Re-host. L-3 chose the Gulfstream G550 business jet to receive modified and upgraded Compass Call mission systems – to be transferred from EC-130H aircraft.

But… Teal Group believes the Compass Call program is still very much in flux (and very much classified). The USAF recently began to claim that a business jet is no longer a safe platform for its planned JSTARS Recap, so why is it okay for Compass Call? Perhaps the Air Force intends to re-host a limited number of Compass Call aircraft, to serve alongside a classified, more survivable or stealthy, aircraft system….

Currently, our speculative forecast is essentially the same “hybrid” forecast it was in 2015 – for a limited fleet of Compass Call systems (now re-hosted and upgraded) – fewer than the 15 currently in service. But this year, as the re-hosting is new, and seems to be going ahead, this will mean much more money spent to upgrade and likely miniaturize and automate systems before transferring them to the much smaller G550 platform (Teal Group forecasts $2.5 billion over the next decade).

Future USAF Classified ECM Aircraft

On the other hand, assuming Teal Group’s forecasts of a parallel USAF classified ECM aircraft from the past few years are correct, much of the new Compass Call modification (smaller and more automated) has already been in development for years. There will be much greater similarity between a classified USAF UCAV system and the system aboard a G550, than the older, larger Prime Mission Equipment systems aboard the EC-130H Hercules. And yet, there has been essentially no discussion of the re-hosted Compass Call PME. The Air Force sort of skims over the process of “upgrading” EC-130H systems to fit aboard a business jet. That would not be an easy process – unless it has already been in development for years….

To reflect this tacit acknowledgement of a major, ongoing classified larg(ish)-aircraft ECM system, we are adding a new, speculative forecast for a Future USAF Classified ECM Aircraft system. With lots of funding ($4.3 billion in our forecast period). And, likely this system for a classified, stealthy UAV or UCAV will be partially shared with the Re-hosted Gulfstream G550 Compass Call.

Either way, it now again looks like Compass Call systems will remain in service for decades with the US Air Force, as their primary, classified, and expensive ECM program. Our forecasts are all highly speculative.

Compass Call Re-host: Future Common USAF Electronics Platform?

In late 2017, following its selection by L-3 for the Compass Call Re-host platform, Gulfstream’s G550 business jet was also a leading candidate for the Air Force’s new JSTARS Recap platform. The belief of some is that the G550 will now be more favored both for a JSTARS Recap and possibly a future RC-135 Rivet Joint platform (both currently hosted aboard much larger Boeing 707 aircraft). According to Michael Strianese, chairman and CEO of L-3 Technologies, “What we’re doing with this recap, there’s likely to be more after this. There is some wisdom to just having the same aircraft in the fleet, for maintenance and logistics.”

Strianese also stated that L-3 is more capable than original equipment manufacturers to quickly and effectively perform military systems integration work – “When those planes get recapitalized, if they give that work to an OEM, they’re going to pick themselves to do the mission integration, and they usually don’t do it well.”

About the Author

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell has been Senior Analyst, Electronics at Teal Group since 1995, where he is editor of Teal's Military Electronics Briefing (MEB) as well as co-author of Teal's annual World Military Unmanned Aerial Systems: Market Profile and Forecast. He also contributes regular monthly military electronics News Briefs to the Teal Group website.

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