A Glimpse At Tomorrow’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Weapons

U.S. Air Force Capt. Frank Von Heiland, 41st Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron co-pilot, checks his oxygen mask on an EC-130H Compass Call aircraft at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Sept. 12, 2014.


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U.S. Air Force Capt. Frank Von Heiland, 41st Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron co-pilot, checks his oxygen mask on an EC-130H Compass Call aircraft at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Sept. 12, 2014.

The electromagnetic spectrum is where the wars of the future will be won or lost. Here’s a brief glimpse of what those battles will look like.

In conflict zones from Europe to the Middle East, the electromagnetic spectrum has assumed a central place on the modern battlefield. In eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed forces have used sophisticated jamming and interception tactics to undermine communications and surveillance drones. And after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border, Russia deployed its S-400 air defense system, whose advanced surveillance and engagement radar can guide missiles to targets nearly 400 kilometers away. The jammers in Ukraine and the radar in Syria represent two sides of the same technology — a field the United States is now losing its edge in, according to Bryan Clark and Mark Gunzinger from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In a speech yesterday at the Association of Old Crows symposium, Clark laid out a series of scenarios to describe how the United States, Russia, and others will wage electronic warfare in the next decade and beyond. It was a preview to a report, “Winning the Airwaves: Regaining America’s Dominance in the Electromagnetic Spectrum,” that he wrote with Gunzinger and unveiled today alongside lawmakers and unveiled today at the Capitol building.

Here’s a brief glimpse of how Clark and Gunzinger say the electromagnetic spectrum will change warfare:

Drones and decoys: Useful for more than loitering over a target and lobbing Hellfire missiles, drones will be used to launch jamming or hacking attacks at short distances. (An example would be this drone that does penetration testing.)

The key is the unmanned aircraft’s ability to sneak up on an adversary. The closer you are physically to the target, the less power you need to use, which makes your electronic warfare operation harder to detect and counter.

“The U.S. military could shift toward using unmanned vehicles or expendable payloads that emit low-power jamming noise in the [radio frequency] spectrum … or dazzling [electro-optical / infrared sensors] or narrowly focused radar beams to establish accurate targeting information for attacks,” the authors write.

But Clark and Gunzinger see another use for drones: as decoys meant to provoke the enemy to activate his fire-control radar and thereby reveal its position.

Here’s how they describe it: “Use passive sensors to detect enemy [radio frequency and infrared emissions.] Locations of enemy emitters can be determined by triangulating emissions received by multiple, dispersed manned or unmanned platforms or by analyzing the Doppler shift of [electromagnetic] emissions received by passive sensors. It is likely that some targets, such as fire control radars, will only emit after receiving a cue from a sensor…the U.S. military could use emitting decoys to cause fire control radars to activate, allowing passive sensors to geo-locate them.”

Stealthier sensors: Lasers aren’t just useful for burning holes in things. Light Detection and Ranging lasers, or LIDAR, is how self-driving cars see the road. The same principle could be used to detect objects that we today hunt with radar — using tightly focused laser beams that are harder to detect than radio signals.

Another way to reduce U.S. military electromagnetic emissions is to go passive. Instead of powerful emitters, future sensors could use “ambient energy that comes from enemy communication systems, emitters of opportunity such as television and radio transmitters,” they write. “In the absence of a predominant emitter, U.S. forces could use multiple networked receivers to evaluate returns from different aspects of a potential target.”

EMP cruise missiles: “Within the next five years, DOD could field cruise missiles with [high powered microwave] warheads that could be launched from standoff distances to attack electronics-based [anti-access/area denial] systems,” the authors write. Think the GoldenEye in missile form.

Scenario: SOF Raid

Pull of these concepts together and a future EW attack, one with real operators involved, looks like chaotic mix of drones, signals, and decoys. Here’s how Clark and Gunzinger describe a team of special operators launching an attack on an enemy base:

The first thing the enemy sees is a series of drones, decoys that draws their attention and fire away from the team, launched by a nearby battalion. The special operators are using their own drones with low-powered jammers to mask their signature. Microwave energy jamming weapons find and attack whatever enemy assets are left over. It’s a crowded battlefield despite the relatively few number of people on it. It’s also one where a handful of humans have a big impact because their use of the spectrum is slightly more sophisticated than that of their adversary.

The United States is uniquely positioned to take advantage of current and next generation of electronic warfare technologies, but that’s not what we’re doing, say Clark and Gunzinger. In fact, a lack of “operational concepts” read that to mean coherent planning is holding the U.S. back, both in terms of acquiring technologies that are already fairly developed. “DoD’s lack of operational concepts that describe new [electromagnetic system] war-fighting methods and capabilities may be the most significant barrier to a shift into the competitive regime,” the authors write.

In 2013, the Defense Department released its electromagnetic spectrum strategy, detailing how it intended to win the wars in the modern contested spectrum environment. But while the United States is strategizing, other countries are gaining real-world experience.

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