A demostration of the Mid-tier Networking Vehicular Radio system at Fort Huachuca
A demostration of the Mid-tier Networking Vehicular Radio system at Fort Huachuca // US Army Test and Evaluation Command

How the Army Plans to Fight a War Across the Electromagnetic Spectrum

The Pentagon long has made a big effort to showcase its budding cyberwarfare capabilities. But the military has been less forthcoming about a key, more tangible component of cyber — electronic warfare – until now.

The Army just publically released its first-ever Field Manual for Cyber Electromagnetic Activities. The manual covers operations related to cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, highlighting that for the Army electronic warfare is every bit as important as the cyber threat we hear so much about in abstract.

Electromagnetic spectrum, or ES, is the entire field of electromagnetic radiation that surrounds all of us, including infrared, radar, TV and radio waves. It’s what allows for cellphone and radio communication. The Army’s field manual describes a variety of its electronic warfare, or EW, operations — from sending confusing signals and messages that degrade the enemy’s communication capability on the battlefield to finding enemy equipment and destroying it with big bursts of electromagnetic radiation. (Remember Goldeneye?) The manual does not explain how to conduct specific EW attacks, but it does provide guidance to soldiers on what these sorts of operations look like in terms of protocol, terminology, and command and control. And it comes right as the number of potential electronic warfare operations is growing with every new radio or internet-dependent device that the military buys.

Want to fly a drone? Get directions from the Global Positioning System? Drop a smart bomb? Use radar to land your plane, communicate with a forward operating base on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, find an improvised explosive device or, better yet, detonate one?  Then you’ll need access to the electromagnetic spectrum. Even door locks that use radio-frequency ID, requiring the chipped common access (CAC) ID card that Army employees carry, use electromagnetic radiation.  

The military has been fighting to maintain spectrum dominance since the days of World War II radio jamming. But reliance on the spectrum is going to grow considerably in the future and take a variety of forms. The lower ends of the spectrum are useful for radio and cell communication, including Bluetooth exchanges. The frequencies at the higher end of the spectrum have applications for things like cruise missile targeting and lasers. Extremely sophisticated (and expensive) military equipment like the Army’s proposed laser truck, which would shoot down enemy drones, might use spectrum frequencies in a wide number of different ways.

But the spectrum doesn’t just represent a weapon. It’s also a gaping vulnerability. The U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on the atom-sized units of energy that make up electromagnetic radiation. In the last few years, off-the-shelf pieces of wireless communications equipment have allowed everyone from hobbyists to terrorists to access the spectrum cheaply and easily. In the past decade, as more wireless consumer electronics flooded the marketplace, that vulnerability has taken the form of IEDs on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as the streets of Boston during the 2013 marathon bombing).

To patch the hole, the Army established a new career field dedicated to electronic warfare in 2009. Unfortunately, the military’s reliance on the spectrum might be growing faster than our ability to keep hold of it.

“The American military is scrambling to develop new tools and techniques that will help it preserve its electromagnetic edge,” according to Wired’s Brendan Koerner. “But that edge continues to shrink by the day, and very soon our inability to completely control the spectrum might result in a different kind of war.”

It’s an issue that the Defense Department publicaly addressed again last week with the release of its Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy.There’s a push to use the spectrum much more efficiently as the military seeks to access much more of it. That’s either an irreconcilable conflict of wants and available resources or a very delicate balancing act. DOD contends it’s the later. “We are not certainly making the assumption that DOD will have to make do with less spectrum,” said the Pentagon’s chief information officer, Teri Taki.

On the cyber side, the manual offers detailed descriptions of who responds to whom in an cyber-operation and how the various roles differ; priority lists for unit activities (hint: defend first, then attack); functions of cyberspace operations; how to prepare the intelligence battlefield; what to attack in order to achieve what goals; and the multinational and legal considerations for various actions.

Both cyber operations and spectrum warfare fall under the category of electronic communication. But experts who saw the manual disagreed, somewhat, on the decision to group the two together in one field guide. Do IEDs and denial-of-service attacks really have that much in common?

“There has been some debate about how traditional EW capacity will play with newer cyber operations. While there are strong similarities, cyber operations have a broader range of capacities than the traditional EW strategic role, and can support a wider range of operations. Similarly, the counter-EW capacity has a more limited scope than the huge needs to defend our military infrastructure from cyber exploitation and disruption,” Allan Friedman, co-author of the book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know told Defense One.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, a George Mason University research professor and former Air Force cyber officer, argues that electronic warfare and cyber warfare indeed are closely related and should be treated as such. “The new [field manual] makes it clear that conducting these activities independently may detract from their efficient employment,” he said. “This provides a useful mechanism for the traditional and [cyber electromagnetic activities] communities to effectively communicate with one another.”

The overlap between EW operations, related to drones, communications, and improvised explosive devices on the battlefield, and cyberwarfare, which we commonly think of as being about ones, zeros and spam, shows that the Army is evolving its view of both fields.

For U.S. soldiers, according to this new manual, cyber and electronic are the same. Eventually the term cyberwar may soon become obsolete. It might be time to just call it war.