Electronic Warfare Spans the Virtual World

June 16, 2008

The importance of electronic warfare in the information age should be a no-brainer. As electronics permeate—and in some cases dominate—every aspect of military operations, electronic warfare becomes a weapon of choice for forces ranging from the superpower down to the garage-shop terrorist. But in the same manner that the spread of information age technologies has spawned new capabilities, electronic warfare also has seen a geometric growth in its range of operations.

Electronic warfare (EW) is not new. From the day that radios appeared on the battlefield, enemies sought to intercept or degrade those signals. Signal degradation often took the form of broadcasting noise over the frequencies in use—jamming, it was called. And interception was simply a matter of listening to the same frequency as the targeted transmissions. One way U.S. forces provided real-time countermeasures to interception in both world wars was to employ American Indians who spoke in their own unique languages and code.

Now, in a world of frequency-hopping radios and digital encryption, EW has taken many forms. It is a measure of the advance of EW that it can be employed effectively by even the least-capable combatant. With U.S. military strength virtually unchallengeable on the battlefield, adversaries are turning to the virtual world to wage effective warfare against a power they cannot defeat conventionally.

At the top of the list of recent asymmetrical warfare tools are improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These devices have vexed planners in Iraq and Afghanistan by disrupting attempts at instituting a flourishing democratic society in those two countries. Most IEDs are triggered electronically, and experts have sought to disrupt their use by interfering with the triggering systems. As allied forces have succeeded in some areas, IED-wielding terrorists have changed their tactics and technologies in an attempt to stay a step ahead of the countermeasures. Some of the systems that terrorists employ are garage-shop customizations of commercial electronics systems. What they lack in sophistication they make up for in lethality. The to-and-fro of EW in the IED arena continues.

In addition to battlefield applications, EW has its strategic side. Many potential adversaries know that the only way they can hope to defeat the network-centric force is by attacking the network. Ask any cyberspace security expert in the U.S. Defense Department today, and that person will tell you that we already are at war in the virtual environment. Defense networks are hit dozens of times each day, and the sophistication of many of these strikes betrays their origins as being national rather than individual.

Experts are divided as to whether these strikes are vulnerability probes or actual attempts to obtain information by tapping databases and network traffic. The likelihood is that both activities are well underway in the constant assaults on defense networks. If a conventional kinetic war were to break out between the United States and another nation, that adversary almost certainly would pin its hopes on being able to exploit valuable intelligence and disrupt U.S. network-based operations. The concept is as simple as fighting fires with digital fires.

Every invention, discovery or innovation has brought about its own set of drawbacks. The electronics technologies that have fueled the information age also have provided it with its greatest threats. The EW age is upon us with a vengeance.

—The Editor

More information about electronic warfare is available in the July 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers July 1, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.

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