Peering Into Electronic Warfare's Future
Technologies will enhance the visibility of the electromagnetic spectrum.
A number of emerging technologies, including integrated photonics, microdrones and automation tools, will drive an improved perception of available electromagnetic spectrum by U.S. warfighters and enhanced effectiveness in electronic warfare, says William Conley, deputy director, electronic warfare, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
Integrated photonics uses light-based microchips to process data much faster than traditional chips. In the electronic warfare (EW) world, integrated photonics can provide greatly increased frequency coverage and long-distance, low-loss transfer of analog signals compared with traditional radio frequency systems. According to studies by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, chip-scale integrated photonics also allows for potentially extensive reductions in size, weight and power needs.
Conley explains that most usable electromagnetic spectrum for radio frequency communications falls below 110 gigahertz (GHz). “We are on the verge of being able to directly process all 110 of those gigahertz in a way that a decade ago, candidly, we couldn’t even dream of doing,” he says.
He compares the emerging capability to human eyesight. “We can see anything in front of our face with our eyeballs. In the electromagnetic spectrum, we used to have to pick where we were going to look,” Conley says. “As these technologies come into fruition and we start integrating them into our systems, it means we will be able to start looking everywhere at all times. That, from an electronic warfare standpoint, is going to be a substantial and critically important change for us as we go into the future.”
Enhanced vision of the electromagnetic spectrum offers better insights into an enemy’s mindset. “That ability to sense and understand the environment around you via the electromagnetic spectrum will allow us to understand an adversary’s intent in our operational environment,” Conley adds. “If we understand his intent, we can decide what actions we want to take that are desirable for us and undesirable for them.”
He cites the microdrone swarming capabilities demonstrated last year by the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office and the Naval Air Systems Command as a particularly innovative effort. The test consisted of 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets. The microdrones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors, such as collective decision making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing. The diminutive aircraft can be equipped with tiny transmitters for jamming an adversary’s systems.
Conley also lists the Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air architecture as an example of innovation. Last year at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Navy conducted its first live-fire test of the architecture on a Marine Corps F-35B. The result: A simulated Aegis ship engaged a low-flying cruise missile with a Standard Missile-6 based solely on targeting data provided to the ship by sensors on the F-35. Navy officials described the test as an example of the surface force and its Marine Corps partners extending operational horizons, distributing lethality and increasing offensive firepower. “It is a phenomenal look at what we are capable of doing in the electromagnetic spectrum when we choose to approach the problem a little bit differently,” Conley says.
Field-programmable gate arrays also make his list of technologies critical to EW. The integrated circuits can be programmed in the field, following manufacture. For the military, this allows software-reprogrammable systems. “We get a lot of flexibility out of our systems, and that means we have the ability for our users to tailor systems to their needs as opposed to having to develop a new system,” Conley says.
He also sees some benefits to artificial intelligence but admits he is no expert. “Our EW systems will be agile and adaptive, which means we will leverage the best signal processing that is out there,” Conley states.
Automation is valuable both in the laboratory and on the battlefield, he notes. On the tactical front, Conley says the Army’s Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool provides the ability to visualize spectrum and to aggregate spectrum-related data, enabling commanders to make better decisions.
In the lab, automation improves research and development efforts. “Our ability to automate our testing and development of systems is critically important as to where we are today and where we’re going in the future to bring more innovative technologies to the warfighter quicker,” he offers.
The convergence of EW and cyber capabilities also presents opportunities. He points out that cellphones—and digital radios—use spectrum to communicate while they perform digital applications in the cyber domain. “The overlap of electronic warfare and cyber is very important. Any digital radio that’s out there and any system we are currently building is processing via the electromagnetic spectrum but is going to turn that into ones and zeros,” Conley says. “Both of those approaches are reasonable attack vectors into adversary systems. But also we have to make sure we are hardening our systems in both of those areas.”
One of the greatest challenges, he says, is signal processing. “The modern capabilities of signal processing and making sure we are getting the necessary information to make the right decisions is critically important to us, and being able to deny that to any adversary in a time of conflict would be critically important,” Conley says.
In addition, he mentions the importance of integrated fires, also known as joint force fires or combined arms fires. Essentially, this is the ability to tie spectrum operations with cyberspace to deliver kinetic and nonkinetic attacks. It includes capabilities that disrupt adversary command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; deliver electronic payloads that limit an enemy’s freedom of maneuver and action; and enhance the ability of U.S. and allied forces to place ordnance on target.
“We really are seeing an evolution toward combined arms fires or integrated fires. We see those same trends occurring with other countries as well,” he adds.
Conley also serves on the Electronic Warfare Executive Committee established in 2015. The committee was instrumental in developing the department’s EW strategy signed earlier this year. The strategy reportedly calls for more aggressive EW efforts to counter technological advances by potential adversaries such as Russia and China.
Conley makes the point that Russian-made surface-to-air missiles have doubled in range approximately every year since 1950. The original missile, he says, was about a “45 kilometer shooter,” while the most recent version has a 400 km range. “To expect that the SA-21 is as far as any missile will ever fly is probably not realistic. There will be a new system, and it will be better than the one it replaces,” he predicts.
His staff provided briefing slides indicating that China is making advances across a range of domains, including cyber, space, counterspace and EW. Both China and Russia are believed to have strong anti-access/area denial capabilities, commonly known as A2/AD. Conley lists these as the greatest threat from other nation-states. “The A2/AD problem really is a spectrum access problem,” he states. “Figuring out where a fleeting target is at over hundreds of miles is not an easy thing to do, and guiding a weapon to hit that target over hundreds of miles also is not an easy thing to do.”
The committee is now working on a classified strategy implementation plan that will likely become final in the spring. “The strategy is our vision, our target, our bull’s-eye that we’re aiming for. The implementation plan is the individual steps we have to take to realize that vision,” he adds.
Department officials are examining all aspects of EW, including organization, training, doctrine and processes, he indicates. “The reality is that everything we’re doing with electronic warfare or with electromagnetic spectrum operations is really a gargantuan system of systems. It allows all of our radars to work. It allows us to jam an adversary’s radars. It allows us to make our communications work,” he declares.
Implementing the strategy will present challenges. The first is that the Defense Department has some catching up to do. “We haven’t paid attention to electronic warfare or the electromagnetic spectrum for about two and half decades. That requires us to get serious about things that we haven’t done in a long time,” Conley declares.