• All domains—air, land, sea, space and cyber—depend on the availability of radio frequency spectrum. Credit: DISA
     All domains—air, land, sea, space and cyber—depend on the availability of radio frequency spectrum. Credit: DISA

Improving Operations in a Complex Spectrum Environment

April 11, 2018
By Tracy Sharpe


DISA aims to ensure information dominance.


The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is increasing the warfighter’s ability to operate in the complex spectrum environment by providing operational support through electromagnetic battlespace planning, radio frequency deconfliction and joint spectrum interference resolution. DISA’s Defense Spectrum Organization (DSO) ensures the agency and the DOD maintain information dominance through effective electromagnetic spectrum operations.

“All domains—air, land, sea, space and cyber—depend on the availability of radio frequency spectrum,” says DSO director Alan Lewis. He explains that the DSO is engaged across the entire continuum of spectrum. The office’s DOD support efforts include international treaty and domestic frequency regulatory analyses and recommendations; development, fielding and sustainment of Joint Enterprise Spectrum Planning and Management tools; and training and directing operational support to combatant commanders and deployed forces. “We have a strong, collaborative team of experienced professionals that support each other with expertise and constructive feedback across a wide range of functional missions—a significant effectiveness multiplier,” Lewis says.

The armed forces recognize that the mission depends on close joint coordination on spectrum, and this requires evolution of military procedures as well as equipment. Joint electromagnetic spectrum operations include electronic warfare activities and spectrum management operations used to exploit, attack, protect and manage the electromagnetic operational environment.

“The environment is both congested and contested, and we must be able to maneuver in that space without causing problems for ourselves or creating external issues,” says Air Force Col. John T. Caranta III, commander of the Joint Spectrum Center. “We've got to be able to use spectrum-dependent systems when everyone—allies, partners, commercial entities and adversaries—is vying for the same resources.”

Nearly every piece of electronic equipment used in defense operations can both cause and be affected by spectrum interference. The DSO works closely within DISA to ensure new spectrum dependent services will operate effectively while not creating interference. The organization also works across the entire DOD to provide assistance and support for spectrum planning and operations.

In order to operate effectively in the complex spectrum environment, DOD leadership is developing standards and prioritizing spectrum technology investments. DOD training, research, plans and budgets now include consideration of electromagnetic spectrum requirements for spectrum-dependent systems to prevent conflicts that arise from unintended radio frequency interference, as well as for defensive and offensive measures against adversarial electronic warfare tactics. To help achieve this objective, the DSO is working in coordination with the DOD undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment to support more effective acquisition of spectrum-dependent systems by helping program managers identify and mitigate potential spectrum related risks prior to development and fielding of new capabilities.

Radio frequency interference can be intentional, such as jamming from an adversary, or inadvertent, such as lack of coordination between friendly forces. It can even surface during the design of equipment that seems to have no relation to spectrum. For example, a motor that powers windshield wipers on a military vehicle may create enough radio frequency interference to significantly interfere with radio communication equipment located in that vehicle.

“Only by understanding the risks of the intended electromagnetic operating environment can program managers and material developers adequately appreciate any requirements for electromagnetic spectrum survivability features in their designs,” says Yuriy Posherstnik, a DSO senior electronics engineer.

Posherstnik led DSO’s development of the electromagnetic spectrum Survivability Guidebook in support of the joint staff’s update to the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System manual. The guidebook defines the key performance parameters for agile, adaptable, efficient, survivable and multifunctional spectrum-dependent systems.

The guidebook encourages the consideration of electromagnetic spectrum threat analysis; provides a scorecard to assess electromagnetic spectrum survivability; includes qualitative measures of electromagnetic spectrum survivability; and provides recommended performance criteria. It avoids mandates of universal, one-size-fits-all performance criteria by promoting system requirements that are adaptable, efficient, survivable and multifunctional.

Since the release of the DOD Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy in 2013, the DSO has worked closely with DOD, federal, international and commercial partners in order to evolve DOD spectrum standards, dependent systems and operations.

The increased use of electromagnetic spectrum by the DOD requires a more comprehensive understanding of the environment. The multidomain battlespace bridges tactical and operational divides between land, air, sea, space and cyberspace.

Collateral interference of the electromagnetic spectrum can disrupt U.S. missions. For example, if the goal of a specific DOD electronic warfare mission is to disrupt an adversary's electronic equipment, mission planners might not realize their actions will concurrently disrupt U.S. systems fulfilling a separate mission.

The DSO is working with the components and services to collect data on the electromagnetic spectrum within a battlespace and provide analyses for mission commanders, mission partners and allies. This will enable effective operational capabilities within a congested and sometimes contested electromagnetic environment.

The organization is also working with industry and researchers to increase DOD capabilities while minimizing the impact to the electromagnetic environment. The goal is to increase spectrum access efficiency, flexibility and adaptability.

Betsy Park, a senior engineer at DSO, is part of the team collecting and providing DOD-wide access to spectrum data to analyze band usage and congestion. “We are also enabling analysis of which systems operate in given bands and associated frequency assignments so that the DOD can more easily evaluate impact of regulatory changes. With this inventory of spectrum activity, we have developed the ability to provide geospatial visualization of the present electromagnetic spectrum environment,” she says.

Park explains that the data collected enables the DSO to provide improved strategic planning and strategic analysis. “We use our data to capture historical trends for spectrum usage and interference reporting, and provide metrics for evaluation of spectrum congestion.” The capability to project spectrum use activity allows DOD personnel to adapt and select the most appropriate equipment; anticipate conflicts ahead of time; and adjust tactics and procedures as a flexible response to a complex, often fluid environment.

The capability to analyze, visualize, plan, and manage electromagnetic spectrum interactions over a span of time—not a static moment—improves the efficiency and effectiveness of DOD operations. A comprehensive understanding of the dynamic electromagnetic spectrum environment supports planning to enable intentional effects and avoid unintentional ones. It facilitates many other aspects of operations, including decisions on what equipment should be used and when, as well as aiding in the development of a comprehensive electronic warfare plan.

Although the DSO is not responsible for acquiring spectrum dependent systems for the DOD, these efforts are providing key information to support the development and employment of new operational capabilities.  Through its data collection and analysis, DISA is also laying the foundation for improved visualization of the spectrum environment.

Caranta says that one day spectrum-dependent systems could automatically sense and adjust to interference. “In the future, a maneuver unit—a ship, an aircraft or an infantry squad—will be able to sense and understand what their electromagnetic spectrum footprint looks like along with the threats to the electromagnetic spectrum environment, and they will be able to automatically maneuver within the spectrum environment so they can maintain command, control and communications with other maneuver units or higher headquarters,” Caranta says.

The DSO has been working closely with DOD, federal, international and commercial partners to transform spectrum operations. 

“DSO strives to improve the warfighter’s ability to operate in a joint battlespace by taking and advocating a holistic approach to management and use of the electromagnetic spectrum and developing capabilities that ensure our spectrum-dependent systems can operate as intended in both congested and contested environments,” Lewis says. “Quite simply, our combat forces’ ability to detect, engage, avoid, communicate, coordinate and train effectively depend on this.”

Tracy Sharpe is a member of the DISA staff.

This special report has been contributed by the DISA staff as part of the advance coverage of the AFCEA Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium (DCOS) taking place May 15-17 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

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