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Electronic-Warfare Assets Badly Neglected 


by Rep. Joseph R. Pitts 

The history of warfare is often described as a struggle between the offense and the defense. That's a fine framework, if you like football. But there may be better ways of thinking about warfare in the information age.

Perhaps the real military struggle today is between awareness and deception. Each side in a conflict strives to learn as much as possible about an adversary's location, leaders, capabilities, strategy and tactics-while at the same time denying the enemy information about friendly forces.

The effort to gain superior awareness or "knowledge dominance" in combat is as old as warfare itself. But in an era of multispectral sensors, instant communications and precision munitions, dominant knowledge may mean quick, decisive victory, while inferior awareness may mean rapid, crushing defeat. It is not enough, however, to know the enemy. It is equally important that the enemy not know you. Those twin imperatives of modern warfare are the rationale for the burgeoning mission area of "information operations."

The United States has been engaged in at least one form of information warfare for more than half a century. Since the advent of radar in the late 1930s, U.S. airborne forces have played a cat-and-mouse game of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures that has come to be known as electronic warfare (EW). For a variety of bureaucratic and doctrinal reasons, the armed services today prefer to differentiate electronic and information warfare. But from a purely practical perspective, it is obvious that EW has always been about controlling the electromagnetic spectrum in wartime so that we can know the enemy better than he knows us.

Italian air-power theorist Guilio Douhet wrote in his hugely influential treatise, "The Command of the Air," published in 1921, that a prime reason why he believed offensive aircraft would revolutionize warfare was the impossibility of knowing all the possible routes they might use to approach intended targets.

Douhet's argument became the wisdom in Europe during the inter-war years, which explains why British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin warned his countrymen in 1932 that "the bomber will always get through."

Fortunately for Britain, the invention of radar on the eve of World War II deprived air power of its most critical advantage-surprise-and thus enabled a relatively small defensive force of fighters to prevail in the Battle of Britain.

Since that time, it has been apparent to military planners that the success of air campaigns depended upon suppressing enemy defensive sensors while exploiting similar technology, such as precision seekers, for offensive purposes.

In the early years, foiling enemy defenses involved simple techniques such as flying below radar horizons or filling the sky with a blizzard of reflective chaff. But during the Cold War, electronic warfare became an increasingly more complex task of lethal and non-lethal defense suppression, employing sophisticated skills and equipment.

The main reason why electronic warfare grew so complicated was that defenders learned how to adapt to various strategies. Radars became more powerful, more discriminating and more agile. Command and control networks became more resilient and responsive. Surface-to-air missiles became smarter and more numerous. Each time America fought an air campaign-in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf-potential adversaries learned new ways of coping with U.S. EW methods, forcing the Pentagon to come up with more clever electronic counters. From this perspective, low observables (stealth) are just one in a series of measures conceived to preserve electromagnetic dominance.

But stealth in its early years was sometimes oversold as a revolutionary alternative to EW. So its fielding at the end of the Cold War led to a neglect of electronic-warfare missions and technologies. This problem was most apparent in the Air Force, which decided-despite the critical importance of EW in Operation Desert Storm-to retire its EF-111 Raven and F-4G Wild Weasel electronic-warfare aircraft in the 1990s. The jamming mission migrated to the Navy's EA-6B Prowler.

Today, there are 124 EA-6B Prowlers organized in 19 squadrons-10 carrier-based, eight expeditionary (land-based) and one reserve. The Prowler has proved indispensable in a series of air campaigns such as Operations Northern and Southern Watch to enforce Iraqi no-fly zones, and Operation Allied Force against Yugoslavia. It is rare for U.S. planes to enter hostile air space anywhere in the world without standoff jamming provided by the Prowler. In the Kosovo operation, even stealthy strike aircraft were supported by the Prowler, and the loss of a U.S. combat plane-an F-117 stealth fighter-was directly attributable to lack of adequate EW coverage.

But if Kosovo reinforced the importance of electronic warfare, it also underscored just how neglected EW assets have become. There were so few EA-6Bs available worldwide to support the Balkan air war that Prowlers were shifted out of Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf region, leaving those areas temporarily uncovered. Even instructors from the Prowler's home base at Whidbey Island, Wash., had to be deployed.

The simple truth is that America's airborne electronic-warfare forces are overworked and under-funded. To make matters worse, they are beginning to show their age. The average Prowler is nearly 20 years old, and no new airframes have been produced in a decade. It's time to move on to a new airframe, but steps must be taken to preserve EW capabilities until a platform is selected and operational sometime in the next decade.

An advanced digital EW architecture for the next-generation support jammer called ICAP-3 soon will be operational, and initially will be deployed on Prowlers before it transitions to more modern aircraft. But there is a host of other EW-related shortfalls that must be addressed-from better connectivity to more precise anti-radar munitions to night-vision devices for pilots. The armed forces cannot continue to neglect these needs.

That is the reason why members of the House of Representatives have established an Electronic Warfare Working Group. The working group was conceived as a task force to assure greater congressional understanding and oversight of electronic-warfare systems and missions. The performance of U.S. forces in Operation Allied Force made clear that Congress and the Pentagon need to pay closer attention to electronic warfare, not just because it is a high-leverage war-fighting skill, but also because of the strides other nations are making in that arena. America cannot maintain its military edge unless it continues to control the electromagnetic spectrum.

Joseph R. Pitts is a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and is co-chairman of the Electronic Warfare Working Group in the U.S. Congress. He is a member of the Defense Advisory Board of the Lexington Institute.

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