President's Commentary: EW Puts Technology-Based Forces at Risk

November 1, 2017
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Electronic warfare (EW) is one of the most complex, least understood and difficult operating environments we face. U.S. forces in Southwest Asia did not encounter a consistently serious EW challenge, and in some ways, EW has become a forgotten capability. Since the end of the Cold War, when we concentrated on defending and waging EW against the Soviets, attention has turned elsewhere. Now the Soviet heirs in Russia, as well as other adversaries, have refined and sharpened their EW skills. If we engage in a higher level of conflict than we have faced in the recent past, then we will likely confront a foe wielding a vastly improved EW capability that could threaten the success of our operations.

Potential adversaries have seen the advantage the United States has gained from technology, but they also recognize that the edge it gives us could be an Achilles’ heel. An effective EW capability gives our adversaries an avenue to detect, disrupt, degrade, deny or alter key networks and systems as well as their information, crippling vital command and control.

Information warfare is underpinned by networks, which often are empowered by the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. An enemy that employs an RF attack on those networks can have a substantial impact on the information flowing through them and, consequently, the mission.

When people talk about information warfare, they frequently think in terms of its advantages and disadvantages without recognizing or understanding its threat to the vulnerable information delivery system and complex foundation. Many tend to look at the input or output without knowing how that information moves from point A to point B and how it could be disrupted en route. The RF spectrum is an enabler of information flow and a potential vulnerability.

One unusual facet of EW is that it operates from the strategic level down to the tactical level. It can affect operations from space to sea. Satellites can be jammed, signals can be intercepted underwater, and jammers can be operated on the battlefield.

Our perceived advantage in the RF environment is at risk, and we need to address that now.

One way is through advances in software-defined networks and RF agile radios. Coupled with new RF-based transmission technologies and modulation techniques, and supported by security, these technologies would be less vulnerable to EW than their hardware-based predecessors. Taking advantage of these new technologies would give us the opportunity to develop more resilient, agile and flexible networks that can operate in an EW-intense environment.

Some solutions may lie in the past. A few old EW technologies whose development was put on hiatus after the Cold War need to be dusted off and reconsidered for use in the modern information environment.

This applies to offensive EW as well. As with cyber, the defense is at a disadvantage. We need a complementary offensive capability for EW beyond what is in today’s digital arsenal. We must redouble our efforts to expand far beyond current means, keeping adversaries off balance and reducing the impact of their EW methods. We need the ability to seize the initiative, disrupt the adversary’s plans and then retain information superiority.

In many cases, the best defense is a good offense. This might entail jamming command and control capability to degrade enemy EW activities.

In the future, EW may be at the forefront of a conflict. Russia, for example, has demonstrated its willingness to employ mobile jammers with supporting forces during operations in Crimea and Ukraine. Russia has focused extensively on EW over the past 10 years, and its recent military operations have served as a laboratory for its latest EW capabilities. The Russians have dusted off their EW doctrine, applied resources and developed improved capabilities based on lessons learned in the field.

While we were at war, Russia was going to EW school. The United States has not made the advances at the pace necessary to offset Russian EW progress. We must become more agile, and our systems must be built from the beginning to operate in an EW environment. And we must improve our frequency management.

We may be technologically superior, but we are not technologically dominant. We must do a better job of integrating EW into operations. Our country has to assume an air of urgency as it applies resources to confront the EW challenge—lest that urgency becomes desperation on the battlefield.

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