FORT BLISS, Texas – Echoing through a remote part of one of the Army’s largest U.S. training sites in the desert of the American southwest is a Top 40 song coming from an infantryman’s cracked tablet glinting in the hot sun.
The soldier has a variety of frequencies listed on the screen that his electronic warfare system has picked up. In this case, he’s found an FM radio station to demonstrate his ability to find, track and pinpoint signals, as well as decipher whether those signals are coming from friendlies, from the surrounding civilian population or from enemy forces.
An air assault unit ― the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky ― at the Network Integration Evaluation last month put the first prototypes of several of the Army Rapid Capabilities Office’s electronic warfare solutions to the test in a hot, austere environment.
The office requested the names of the systems, which have yet to become official programs, not be published.
A staff sergeant with the unit demonstrated the capability of a dismounted electronic warfare system on July 26 for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Commander Gen. David Perkins.
“The way it’s going to work is we are going to go out and search for signals in the area,” he said. The system is designed to search for RF frequencies, cell phones, unmanned aircraft systems, “any radio frequency we can find,” he added.
An operator using one of the two separate dismounted systems tested at the NIE would then detect a frequency of interest and pass the information up through a vehicle-mounted system at the company level that can communicate to a higher echelon. A determination is made there whether to jam an enemy, triangulate the enemy’s location and send in a call for fires or some other appropriate response, according to Sgt. Justin Hatch, an EW operator with the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
Hatch and his fellow operators at the NIE commented the dismounted EW prototypes evaluated provided an “awesome” capability, but could always get lighter. One system weighed roughly 27.4 pounds while the other weighed 46.
The tough tablet provided for one prototype also needed to be more rugged, one user said, showing a cracked screen. And there’s no good place to store the tablet dangling from the pack containing the EW system.
The adaptor used to charge the system requires power from three adaptors to run it for three hours. One soldier said, “when you talk about going out and doing a 12-hour mission where you want to keep enemy comms jammed, that is a lot of batteries and nowhere to put them.”
The soldiers trying out the EW prototypes also contemplated whether it made sense within a light infantry company to have riflemen assigned to carry and operate the EW capability as they were tasked during the NIE.
Lt. Col. Keith Carter, the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment commander, said there is a lot of special equipment at the platoon level. “At this point we have a piece of special equipment almost for every person in the platoon,” he told Perkins at the NIE. “Infantrymen need to be able to maneuver on the enemy.”
Therefore, it might make more sense to have EW operators attached to a unit, rather than give riflemen the extra job, operators suggested.
The evaluations happening in the field at NIE are directly informing the next steps within the Army’s RCO on how to evolve multiple prototypes at once.
The RCO is designed to develop and field capabilities within one to five years that address capability gaps at the strategic level. It is currently prioritizing developing capabilities for electronic warfare, cyber and positioning, navigation and timing in a GPS-denied environment.
The Russians in particular have continued to develop strong electronic warfare tactics. But while the Russians never stopped developing EW capabilities, the U.S. has not focused heavily on a serious electronic warfare capability for a long time and is playing catch-up.
The RCO’s prototypes are in the very nascent stages. This particular stage for the EW prototype is referred to by the office as “Phase Zero.”
Maj. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the RCO’s director of operations, told Defense News at the NIE that the outfit is “not looking for a perfect solution. We are looking for small-scale projects where we can take some technology risks and so by doing that, some of them may be, say, 80-percent right.”
The idea is to keep incrementally improving those prototypes over time and to continuously go back and find emerging technologies that may not have been considered yet, he said.
And when it comes to prototyping a capability like EW, “it’s not really just fielding gadgets,” Shoffner said, “it’s also figuring out how soldiers are going to use them, how they are going to fight them, what the doctrine is going to be, what are the tactics, techniques and procedures, what is the training required, how do we work the manning?”
Testing prototypes out at NIE really helps put the systems to the test because it’s an enormous, very permissive training environment, Shoffner explained, and that means soldiers assigned to play opposition forces can also use tools and tactics designed to mimic threats that really challenge the system that couldn’t be mimicked elsewhere due to civilian restrictions and regulations.
The RCO also used Saber Guardian, a U.S.-led military exercise in Eastern Europe in July, to test the same prototypes, but with a different flavor of terrain, environmental conditions and with different types of units including the vehicle-heavy 2nd Cavalry Regiment.
Testing in Europe is critical because the RCO plans to ramp up its evaluation of EW prototypes during next year’s Joint Warfighting Assessment to take place in Europe for the first time in the spring of 2018.
Capt. Sean Lynch, an electronic warfare officer tasked to evaluate the EW prototypes in Europe at Saber Guardian, told Defense News that the goal during the exercise was to test the interoperability of some of the major EW systems including dismounted, vehicular and the Counter-UAS Mobile Integrated Capability (or CMIC).
“A lot of that piece is to see how well certain things talk to one another,” he said. The prototypes were tested at Grafenwoehr Training Center in Germany as well as during a river-crossing exercise on the Danube in Bordusani, Romania.
It was particularly challenging to work through the host country approval processes to use the systems during exercises, but important given the fact the systems will ultimately deploy to Europe, Lynch noted.
While the systems have a long way to go, they hold promise and seeing how quickly capability is being generated through the RCO “has been fantastic,” Lynch said.
Next up, the RCO will enter Phase 1 of the EW prototyping effort in early 2018 in Europe. It will be incorporating more equipment and more training. Some new capabilities will be introduced later in 2018, according to Shoffner.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.