Before the first Navy jet fighters and bombers joined in air strikes over Iraq last week, scientists from Point Mugu reprogrammed aircraft computers with fresh intelligence on how to elude Iraqi radar.
The information, developed from months of scrutinizing Iraqi air defenses, helped Point Mugu engineers and computer scientists exploit weaknesses in Iraqi radar that could target U.S. warplanes for anti-aircraft missiles.
Military analysts say mastery of such "electronic warfare" has helped U.S. aircraft make thousands of bombing runs over Iraq with remarkably few casualties.
The work of scientists at Point Mugu helped Navy aircraft fool enemy radar with bogus signals or to blind them with powerful electronic blasts, they say.
"Basically, we have been able to shut down the eyes and ears of the Iraqis," said Jon Englund, a former Pentagon official, now with the American Electronics Assn. in Washington, D.C.
For the Navy, most testing and development of anti-radar technology is done at the Electronic Warfare Directorate, cloistered behind the barbed-wire fences of Point Mugu's Pacific Missile Test Center.
About 500 military and civilian employees, and another 300 experts from defense contractors, test new electronic countermeasures such as radar-jamming equipment and simulate what they suspect as the capability of enemy radar and electronic technology.
"We spent a lot of time studying our adversaries, building radars and jammers that work against our F-14s, F/A-18s and Aegis cruisers," said the directorate's top naval officer. He requested his name not be published because of what he considers an increased terrorist threat during wartime.
Once the directorate has simulated enemy radar technology, its engineers and scientists devise new ways to foil the system before an anti-aircraft missile could be launched.
"It is a question of finding that Achilles' heel," the top officer said. "We haven't wasted the last six months. Whatever we are doing seems to be working."
Indeed, military analysts said that Iraq's air defenses were caught off guard by unmanned cruise missiles and radar-eluding Stealth bombers, quickly followed by the main air armada cloaked by radar-jamming airwaves.
After the initial attack by cruise missiles and Stealth bombers, "electronic warfare allowed the rest of our aircraft to penetrate with impunity," said Jeff Shaffer, a political-military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The combination, he said "has been a spectacular success, given the lack of casualties."
Radar works by broadcasting electronic pulses that reflect off objects such as aircraft and echo signals back to receivers at the radar unit.
It determines the range and bearing of a target by measuring the elapsed time between the broadcast and reception of the echo and shifts in its frequency.
To jam radar, aircraft are outfitted with electronic equipment that sends out conflicting signals to mask location or blanket an area with so much false information that it becomes impossible to locate anything on a radar screen. Much of this equipment has been tested at Point Mugu.
In the Navy, an EA-6B Prowler flying with a team of fighters or bombers can jam a wide swath through enemy radar, creating a path through which the aircraft can fly.
The Air Force has its own aircraft for this function, the EF-111 and the F4-G Wild Weasel.
If widespread jamming fails, fighters and bombers carry their own equipment to confuse radar. Techniques range from beaming back distorted radar frequencies to jettisoning small electronic decoys that look like a 10-ton airplane on a radar screen.
"The jamming at the start was pretty effective," said Fred Frostic, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "If you did 1,000 sorties and lost three airplanes, it has to be very, very effective."
In the electronic warfare game, Navy officials said their experts at Point Mugu work feverishly at ways to foil every conceivable countermeasure. Such developments are called counter-countermeasures.
Aircraft electronics' growing sophistication has brought more flexibility in adapting to new radar threats. Until recently, electronic warfare equipment had fixed, or "hard-wired," operating systems. Now, the electronic strategies are contained in computer software that can be quickly changed, experts said.
The Electronic Warfare Directorate, said Point Mugu spokesman Bob Hubbard, "produces computer tapes that are loaded into aircraft to jam ground radar and air defenses in any particular area of the world."
In an era of high-tech weaponry, electronic equipment makes up about 40% of the cost of military aircraft, said Englund of the American Electronics Assn.
"Everyone is critical of the defense industry, but here's a case where these systems really came through and helped save lives," he said.
Some members of Congress have criticized the billions of dollars the Pentagon spends every year on decoys, deception and jamming--originally designed to win superiority against the Soviet Union.
Navy officials and defense analysts said Iraq is the first battlefield where these electronic measures have begun to prove themselves, albeit against a lesser adversary. In the first week of the conflict, aircraft casualties were far lower than those during the initial strikes in the Vietnam War.
However, scientists and engineers at the Electronic Warfare Directorate are focused on the aircraft and crews that have been lost to Iraqi missiles and anti-aircraft guns.
"Even one loss is unacceptable," said the directorate's chief naval officer. "We are trying to figure out what went wrong."