Electronic warfare (EW) goes back more than 100 years, with the introduction of two-way wireless communication. As militaries have become dependent on the wireless spectrum, adversaries have obviously increased their attempts to disrupt that communication.

The earliest documented use of EW goes back to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), when a Russian warship’s captain sought to transmit a stronger radio signal than one being transmitted by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Russian Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky was clearly not a forward-thinker and denied permission for the Russian captain to try to jam the signal.

In the end, the Russian fleet was destroyed at the decisive Battle of Tsushima, however the potential of EW was soon understood and appreciated.

Defense Primer on Electronic Warfare

Last month the Congressional Research Service released a Defense Primer on Electronic Warfare, which is defined by the Department of Defense (DoD) as military activities that use electromagnetic energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum and attack the enemy. This spectrum is the range of frequencies for electromagnetic energy, and EW supports command and control (C2) by allowing military commanders with access to the spectrum to communicate with friendly forces, but at the same time it is used to prevent potential adversaries from also accessing the spectrum.

What began as simple two-way Morse code transmissions at the time of the Russo-Japanese War has developed to encompass nearly every weapons system. This includes everything from radio frequencies to communication with friendly forces, microwaves for tactical data-links, radars, satellite communications; infrared for intelligence and to target enemies; and lasers across the entire spectrum to communicate, transmit data, and potentially destroy a target.

All About Spectrum

The military world relies on the same unseen wireless spectrum that connects our modern world. This allows for voice communication, transmission of data, navigation and timing information to be shared around the world. Bringing down the spectrum, in essence, stops the communication.

“Right now we have a steadily growing and highly congested electromagnetic spectrum,” said Col. Laurie Moe Buckhout, U.S. Army (Retired), CEO and president of Corvus.

“We’ve all jumped on this wireless trend, where all our devices talk to each other, and this includes Wi-Fi and cellular as well as RFID, high frequency and even terrestrial links,” Buckhout told ClearanceJobs. “All of it uses the electromagnetic spectrum.”

While it may seem counter to security, the military world has embraced the wireless world along with the average civilian.

“You can’t get in a fighting vehicle today that isn’t connected, but the average infantryman also has several connected devices,” Buckhout added. “This includes everything from friend-or-foe identification, to GPS to other devices that offer situational awareness. We have modernized the communication with soldiers in the field, but are adversaries are paying very close attention to this.”

Divisions of Electronic Warfare

For military operations there are now three divisions of electronic warfare that include electronic protection, which involves actions to protect access to the spectrum for friendly military assets; electronic attack, which utilizes electromagnetic energy to degrade or deny an enemy’s use of the spectrum; and EW to identify and catalogue emissions of friendly or enemy forces to either protect U.S. forces or develop a plan to deny an enemy’s access to the spectrum.

EW can affect all military domains including land, air, sea, space and even cyberspace – and each of branch of the U.S. military has its own EW capabilities and programs. These are traditionally categorized as either terrestrial or airborne.

The National Defense Strategy, which was released in 2018, emphasized the return of great-power competition and reflected China and Russia’s ongoing efforts to modernize their respective forces to counter U.S. military advantages. As noted by the Congressional Research Service EW primer, the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission, which independently evaluated DoD strategy, stated that the United States is losing its advantages in electronic warfare. The commission recommended that the U.S. increase EW investments and develop new concepts so that the U.S. can regain a military advantage.

The FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mandated the creation of an EW Cross Functional Team to develop an electronic warfare strategy, including an assessment of vulnerabilities and capability gaps, leading to an acquisition plan. Each service has already incorporated EW capabilities into platforms and combat systems.

The U.S. Army has plans to invest in both airborne and ground-based EW programs, and these are currently listed as the Army’s fourth most important modernization tasks. The investment includes a new organization devoted to the EW mission, procuring long-endurance unmanned airborne EW systems, and even unit-level training.

The U.S. Marine Corps has been modernizing its radio battalions, which are units designed around signatures intelligence and electronic warfare; while the U.S. Navy is also developing operational concepts. These include the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept, which is designed to help the carrier air wing to better counter adversaries in denied and degraded environments.

The U.S. Air Force has maintained the concept of air superiority and multidomain command and control require assured access to the spectrum. The Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff stated during their 2018 posture hearing the need to maintain EW capabilities to support the Air Force’s future development.

Future of EW

The importance of EW is likely to only increase, not just because soldiers are so connected, but because even low-tech enemies can take advantage of today’s off-the-shelf communication devices. A good example has been the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which can be triggered remotely via cheap mobile phones.

“This was a primitive attack method,” explained Buckhout. “But it took the U.S. military years to develop effective jamming technology. Now it is about blinding and deafening the enemy.”

The need to combat the constantly changing threats powered by connected systems also presents new need for individuals to work with the military and contracting community on developing tomorrow’s EW systems.

“To work in EW in any way you need to understand the threat,” added Buckhout. “You have to understand our capabilities and much of it is classified. That makes it very important for people to maintain their clearance. This is one segment where you simply can’t be ‘uncleared’ in.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.