How to Equip the U.S. Military for Future Electronic Warfare

By Sorelle, Rich | National Defense, January 2013 | Go to article overview

How to Equip the U.S. Military for Future Electronic Warfare


Sorelle, Rich, National Defense


* As the U.S. military pivots away from counterinsurgency campaigns, it will confront different challenges and strategic environments.

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In Iraq, forces commanded the skies, and forward operating bases and computer systems remained secure. Coalition troops enjoyed freedom of movement. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military outmatches the Taliban.

But we may lack these advantages in a future conflict.

The next time around, the nation may see adversaries mining critical waterways or attacking offshore staging areas with long-range missiles, all in an anti-access effort designed to make U.S. power projection very costly. Likewise, area denial tactics, such as radio frequency (RF) jamming, may hamstring U.S. forces already in theater. Taken together, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is a serious challenge that must be addressed.

In response, the Navy and Air Force have adopted "air-sea battle." The concept entails highly coordinated, cross-domain operations designed to "disrupt the adversary's intelligence collection and command and control used to employ A2/AD weapons systems; destroy or neutralize A2/AD weapons systems within effective range of U.S. forces; and defeat an adversary's employed weapons to preserve essential U.S. joint forces and their enablers," according to the air-sea battle office.

Much of this involves employing the right mix of kinetic weapons. But planners also need to appreciate the critical role of electronic warfare, both in how U.S. adversaries have rolled it into their A2/AD strategies and how our military must use it to maintain freedom of movement and force projection.

Now, it's tempting, given the current budgetary environment, for defense planners to look to electronic warfare systems to make cuts. But that would be shortsighted. The electronic warfare community, both industry and government, needs to rally and make clear what is at stake. There will be no air-sea battle without the tools necessary to control the electromagnetic spectrum across land, sea, air, space and cyberdomains.

As it stands now, the United States no longer enjoys spectrum dominance. In a February statement submitted to the House subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities, then-deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Kaigham Gabriel noted that over the past 15 years, other nations have exploited advances in consumer electronics to catch up in electronic warfare.

Microelectronic devices are not just shrinking, Gabriel explained. They are now able to match U.S. military performance levels. Likewise, signal-processing chips are being replaced by programmable chips, which can be produced more easily and be configured to offer much the same capability as military grade hardware. Finally, Gabriel noted, the explosion of mobile communications has had a lasting effect on electronic warfare, providing state-of-the-art, miniaturized processing technology to anyone who can reverse engineer a cell phone.

Every day, we see this leveling effect in spectrum capabilities. For example, North Korea has employed truck-mounted, long-range jammers to repeatedly drown out GPS satellite signals in many parts of South Korea. One such attack in late April and early May affected the navigation systems of 337 commercial airliners, 122 ships and even cars driving around the streets of Seoul. …

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How to Equip the U.S. Military for Future Electronic Warfare
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