Defense industry money is a lot like military aircraft. Sometimes it arrives loudly, like a cargo plane rumbling down a runway. Other times it slides into a local economy like a stealth bomber — quietly but effectively.
This clumsy analogy brings us to last week's announcement that the Pentagon is spending $1 billion to have Raytheon design a new jamming device for Navy warplanes. The defense firm will design and manufacture 15 "Next Generation Jammers" that will fly inside pods under the wings of warplanes.
The pubic release included a helpful breakdown of where the work will be done. Nearly 14 percent of the work will be done in Dallas and another 8 percent performed in McKinney. The bulk of the work will be done in El Segundo, California. There are two reasons for splitting up work across the nation. One is practical — different areas have specialities, so spreading the work around makes sense. The other reason is cynical — the more congressional districts a defense program touches, the more defenders in Congress who want to see those jobs land in their districts.
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At this point you might be asking, what the hell does a jammer do?
A jamming pod is essentially filled with antennae and radar transmitters. This equipment is vital for a warplane to survive modern combat. The first fight of every mission — a bombing run, surveillance or dogfighting — is waged across invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radar can overpower other radar, sensors can be spoofed with "ghost airplanes." Having a fast fighter that carries this equipment on strike missions is at the core of what the Navy does.
The Navy's baddest-ass electronic warfare plane is the EA-18G Growler, a variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet. The fighter jet turned electronic warfare platform zips in ahead of other warplanes, radiating powerful signals at wavelengths shared by enemies, blinding them to the aircraft following the Growler.
Well, that's the theory. In reality, the EA-18s are carrying a system fielded in 1971. The ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System in current use can't keep up with the gear of modern enemies. It doesn't have the power to overcome others and doesn't have a wide enough the frequency range to handle all comers. They (probably) give off too much heat, making the airplanes easy targets for enemy heat-seeking missiles. Hence the billion investment in a Next Generation Jammer, which is expected to migrate to other warplanes, even some manned and unmanned warplanes outside of the Navy's inventory. That makes this a potentially vast, lucrative project for Raytheon. This project gives them a big head start on the follow-on procurements.
This is good news for the North Texas economy. Dallas is where Raytheon tests its advanced naval radar. (This work includes new warplanes arriving for classified tests, as the Navy confirmed to the Observer this month.) So keep watching the skies. And if you see a Growler, get a photo of it and let us know at Tips@dallasobserver.com. In North Texas, you never really know when the next secret test flights will be overhead.