As the Pentagon moves beyond the relatively low-tech wars in the Middle East and turns its attention to future national security challenges, it has doubled down on sophisticated new radar-jamming devices that aim to render adversaries' air defenses useless.
Although the U.S. faced limited resistance in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan, that would not be the case in Asia, where the Obama administration plans to shift its diplomatic focus and strengthen its defense strategy in the coming decade.
China and North Korea, for example, have quietly invested in advanced sophisticated radar systems, surface-to-air missile batteries, and power-projection capabilities.
So when the Pentagon revealed its fiscal 2015 budget proposal last week, much of the attention was given to a boost in spending on drones and cybersecurity. Less heralded, but vital to U.S. strategic success, experts say, was the high-dollar investment in radar-jamming technology and other electronic warfare.
Much of this shadowy world is top secret, but the military's goal is to have complete control over the range of wireless frequencies at the heart of all aspects of war: satellites, radio and radar.
Jammers, for instance, are designed to identify enemy radar installations, then spew radio waves and beams of electromagnetic noise to electronically disable and destroy them. Though the technology does not result in the sort of fiery blasts produced by heat-seeking missiles or laser-guided bombs, the effect is the same.
"We are so used to dominating at sea and in the air, we don't spend anywhere near the money we should on enablers like electronic warfare and deception and other things like that," acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine H. Fox said this month. "That can make a huge difference. And in this budget environment, we can actually afford things like that."
The hardware used to wage this brand of battle is rarely publicly discussed, but it's being built at locations throughout the Southland.
Travis Slocumb, head of Raytheon Co.'s electronic warfare systems programs centered in El Segundo, said work on next-generation electronic warfare will bring together all the advancements in computer, wireless and communications technology in recent decades.
Engineers are working on it inside the pristine clean rooms and laboratories at Raytheon's sprawling facility.
"I don't think they'll ever make a 'Top Gun'-type movie on the work we do," Slocumb said. "If our technology works, it isn't going to make the nightly news. Everything we do is behind the scenes. We like it that way."
The capabilities of jamming technology are shrouded in secrecy to stay ahead of adversaries.
What is known is that the equipment is strategic and has been used with great success in recent years. The U.S. Navy used EA-18 Growler jets in 2011 to jam Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi's ground radar, enabling NATO fighters and bombers to strike tanks, communication depots and other targets with complete freedom. The jet's "EA" stands for "electronic attack."
The Growlers look like imposing fighters armed to the hilt with big bombs slung under their wings. That's because the plane is a modified version of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. But a closer look reveals that instead of bombs, the Growler carries an array of radars, antennas and high-tech gear.
Each device hanging from the Growlers' wings performs a different function, including pinpointing the location of enemy radar sites, intercepting and jamming radio signals and following the changing enemy radar tactics.
The Navy has placed such a high value on the planes that this week it confirmed it placed an order for 22 more on its unfunded 2015 request submission. If approved by the Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff, the order would be a boon for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s El Segundo facility, which makes the plane's fuselage sections.
Although the Growlers' jamming system has been repeatedly upgraded over the years, it has been in service since the Vietnam War. The goal is to begin installing the Navy's new jamming devices on the carrier-based EA-18 Growler jet by 2020. They might also be put on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and remotely piloted drones.
Under the 2015 budget proposal, the jammer would receive $247 million in funding — 56% more than in 2014. With follow-on contracts, the Navy said the program could be worth more than $7 billion in the years to come.
The promise of money like that — at a time when defense spending on weapons is expected to shrink — set off a heated competition among four aerospace giants: Boeing Co., BAE Systems, Raytheon and a team of Northrop Grumman and Exelis Inc.
The contest dragged on nearly three years before Raytheon — and its electronic warfare unit in El Segundo — was named the winner.