The Outcome of Future Conflicts Depends on Who Controls the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Andrew Wheeler posted on March 06, 2019 |

In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, the interception of wireless communications helped Japan ward off Russia's imperial ambitions. This is perhaps the first known instance of Electronic Warfare (EW), which the Department of Defense defines as "military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy."

The 2oth century saw rapid technological innovation in many areas including wireless. This progress has continued into the 21st century. But like all technological innovations, they are useful both as tools and as weapons.

In the US, electronic warfare consists of three divisions: electronic attack, electronic protection, and electronic warfare support. 

Electronic Attack (EA) is the division that uses electromagnetic energy, directed energy, or anti-radiation weapons to attack personnel, facilities, or equipment with the intent of degrading, neutralizing, or destroying enemy combat capability and is considered a form of fires. 

This is a PHASR rifle.
This is a personnel halting and stimulation response rifle (PHASR) rifle, a class of directed energy weap0ns known as dazzlers. It temporarily blinds opponents using a two-wavelength laser. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.)

Electronic Protection (EP) is the division of electronic warfare involving actions taken to protect personnel, facilities, and equipment from any effects of friendly or enemy use of the electromagnetic spectrum that degrade, neutralize, or destroy friendly combat capability.

Electronic Warfare Support (ES) is a division of electronic warfare involving actions tasked by, or under direct control of, an operational commander to search for, intercept, identify, and locate or localize sources of intentional and unintentional radiated electromagnetic energy for the purpose of immediate threat recognition, targeting, planning and conduct of future operations. 

How Does Cyber Warfare overlap with Electronic Warfare?

Electronic Warfare has some overlap with cyber warfare, and the U.S. Army is the first armed force to combine Electronic Warfare units and specialists with its Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM). Cyber warfare was recently recognized as an additional domain of war (along with air, ground, sea and space).

U.S. Army Pacific Soldiers view video feed from a Phantom 4 Quad Copter during the Pacific Manned Unmanned–Initiative at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)
Pictured above are U.S. Army Pacific Soldiers watching video feed in real-time from a Phantom 4 Quad Copter during the Pacific Manned Unmanned–Initiative at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)

This past autumn, the US Army began taking measures to integrate cyber and electromagnetic cells within brigade combat teams using mobile training teams, transforming electronic warfare professionals into cyber operators in an effort to produce hybrid EW-cyber warfare operations and plans to commanders. Brigade combat teams are composed of about 4500 soldiers who are organized into three battalions of infantry. There are three types of brigades: air assault, light infantry and airborne, and every one of them is capable of air assault operations.

For ground forces, the integration of new hybrid cyber operators into warfighter training underscores the changing landscape of warfare in the 21st century, and will likely impact the tactics, techniques and procedures of the U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations forces.

Shifting from asymmetric warfare to near-peer and peer adversaries

The Pentagon is moving its focus away from fighting asymmetric wars against terrorist organizations, insurgents and ill-equipped enemy states, and shifting it toward preparation for potential conflicts with near-peer and peer adversaries like China and Russia. And the US is in an unusual position for the first time in over 60 years: it may not have the most advanced military technology de facto, as China and Russia have made significant advances, such as Russia's much publicized 3M22 Tsirkon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missiles, ten of which were tested in December of 2018.

Electronic Warfare counters improvised explosive devices (IEDs)

The first war of the 21st century introduced American soldiers to the horrors of IEDs. Between 50-65 percent of Americans killed or wounded in combat were victims of IEDs that were either worn as suicide vests, packed into suicide vehicles, buried in the ground or hidden in buildings, according to the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). This means that 3,100 soldiers died and 33,000 were wounded, included 1800 who lost limbs in either country.

To counter these insidious devices, the Lockheed Martin Symphony system was developed. It is officially known as a radio-controlled improvised explosive device defeat system. Symphony is a ground EW system that works in concert with other jamming technologies to prevent IEDs from killing U.S troops.

Unsurprisingly, software becomes a crucial part of expanding EW capabilities for ground forces. The software-defined radio (SDR) is a hardware device whose nature can change in real-time with changes to its software. And it's getting more attention through the EW initiative known as the C4ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS), which seeks to use software-defined radio more broadly. 

This means that soldiers can use a jammer's power amplifier to broadcast communications or reverse it and use it as a jammer, giving the hardware more flexibility via software changes.

The Versatile Radio Observation and Direction (VROD) Dismounted Electronic Support and Attack system is another example of software-defined radio system destined for integration with European tactical forces. Warfighters using this system are given the ability to "see" electronic frequencies in a virtual map of a given location's electronic environment. They can then hone in on specific frequencies in the spectrum to launch attacks.

Army cyber operations specialists from the Expeditionary Cyber Support Detachment, 782nd Military Intelligence Battalion (Cyber), from Fort Gordon, Ga., provided offensive cyber operations as part of the Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) Support to Corps and Below (CSCB) program. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army.)
At Fort Gordon in Georgia, Army cyber operations specialists from the Expeditionary Cyber Support Detachment, 782nd Military Intelligence Battalion training in offensive cyber operations. This is part of the Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) Support to Corps and Below (CSCB) program. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army.)

With tools that allow commanders to have a real-time situational awareness of signals in a given area, they can strike the hardware with munitions to disable it or jam the signal, rendering it ineffective for enemy forces. Securing military information networks for EW and cyber warfare might create vulnerabilities that need to be addressed by a centralized but flexible system. In the battlefield of the 21st century, operational commander's need to seamlessly address EW and cyber threats on the battlefield for near-peer and peer adversaries across multiple operations, using munitions and EW countermeasures to effectively govern the outcome of any upcoming battles.

The Pentagon is responding to China and Russia's operational doctrines of gaining spectrum dominance by integrating more Electronic Warfare and cyber warfare hardware and tactics into their military capabilities.

Boots on the ground for control of the electromagnetic spectrum

In the devastating wars of the 20th century, "boots on the ground" was really the only way to conquer an enemy (except the atomic-bombing of Japan). Soldiers had to degrade, defeat and destroy an enemy on foot, and then hold and occupy territory at least until surrender.

In the coming wars (no century has passed without major wars) of the 21st century, the integration of the EW/cyber operator into combat brigade teams and elsewhere in U.S. armed forces will be crucial to combat enemy electronics like precision-guided munitions, UAVs, radar installations and robots. 


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