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

By Rich Sorelle

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

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. 

This vulnerability extends to defense systems as well. Last March, Pyongyang’s disruption of GPS signals forced a U.S. Army reconnaissance aircraft to make an emergency landing. Then, several months later, the Iranians captured the advanced RQ-170 drone by, they claim, first cutting its communications link and then spoofing the autopilot’s return coordinates.

When the story of the RQ-170 first broke, many doubted Iran could pull off such a technological feat. But University of Texas at Austin researchers have since proven that drones using unencrypted signals can indeed be hacked. To take control of the RQ-170, an enemy would have to cause the drone’s communications to switch from the encrypted P(Y) code to the civilian C/A code, theorized Richard Langley, a GPS expert at the University of New Brunswick.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what role electronic warfare would play in a larger A2/AD posture. The enemy could degrade the accuracy of U.S. precision-guided munitions or attack other systems. Finally, do not forget that surface-to-air missile batteries would be useless without radars to zero in on aircraft.

The U.S. military and defense industry have started addressing some of these spectrum issues. For example, the Marine Corps has been placing the jam-resistant Link 16 on some of its drones. Likewise, the new GPS III satellites — set to begin launching in 2014 — will broadcast M-code, a far stronger, more secure military signal than P(Y). Advances are also being made in free space optical communications devices, also known as laser communications, which are harder to intercept than RF-based communications. (See story page 34.)

The Defense Department needs to determine what effective electronic warfare systems the military could bring to bear in air-sea battle. Here, there are actually quite a few options. For instance, various airborne jamming systems can blind enemy air defense radar and interfere with his communications, data and computer networks, giving U.S. forces maximum room to maneuver in territory otherwise denied to them.

One such technology is the U.S. Navy’s next-generation jammer (NGJ), which is being developed for use on the carrier-based EA-18G Growler and other aircraft, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. It will embrace the latest in RF technology and have an open architecture. This means that pilots will deliver more jamming power against more targets with more precision — and continue to do so long into the future.

Just as NGJ will clear a safe path for U.S. and allied aircraft, minesweepers can disrupt A2/AD by neutralizing threats in disputed waterways. Cheap and effective, mines let even a small power hold the world’s navigation hostage. But systems like helicopter-towed sweeps, which use acoustic and magnetic fields to set off influence mines at a safe distance, are proving once again the utility of electronic warfare.

These are just some of the technologies that will help the nation maintain its edge in the next conflict. But that assumes that proper investments will be made. The key message for decision makers is that electronic warfare is going to be a prominent feature of both A2/AD and air-sea battle. Ignoring the electromagnetic spectrum is not an option.

Rich Sorelle leads the Electronic Systems Division of ITT Exelis Inc., a supplier of advanced military technologies.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Topics: Cyber, Cybersecurity

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