As Army soldiers in Europe await the expected arrival of a new electronic warfare planning tool known as Raven Claw, several other recent technology upgrades are forcing better awareness of one of their own, greatest vulnerabilities: spectrum.
Certainly, soldiers understand the potential for EW. Raven Claw, for one will allow them to manage the electromagnetic environment on the move and without network connection. And its Versatile Radio Observation and Direction capability, or VROD, and related VMAX “search and attack” function mean warfighters can detect and target potential electromagnetic interference threats.
Another tool, Sabre Fury, offers similar capabilities in a vehicle-mounted format, available for use on Humvees and Strykers.
The tools were delivered in late 2017 and early 2018.
American soldiers based in Germany “want to have the best EW capabilities, because of the adversarial threat,” said Capt. Ian Bolser, EW officer with the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. “There is a strong reliance on electronic communications, and these tools help us both to see ourselves in the spectrum and to use the spectrum to drive targeting and intelligence cycles.”
These emerging capabilities “give commanders the ability to make better and more informed decisions at the tactical level all the way up to the brigade command. If you can use this to locate the adversary and you can protect your own signature, that gives you an advantage,” said Capt. Orlandon Howard, also of the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
Equipped with these assets, commanders “have the situational understanding of signals of interest in their area, Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology said in testimony before the Senate armed services committee last year. “They then have the opportunity to do two things: either strike that particular capability with respect to indirect fires or to jam it [with] a limited jamming capability.”
A firmer grasp of electronic warfare
The emergence of a vehicle-mounted electronic warfare asset for direction finding, frequency identification and jamming has been a significant enhancement for forces in Europe. The result has been a practical and theoretical grasp of EW in the field.
“There is only so high you can put an antenna on a dude who is carrying it, where with the vehicle-mounted system you can put up a 30-foot antenna, which gets us above most of the treetops,” Bolser said. As a result, “you get higher maneuverability in pushing those assets across the battlefield and higher capability in electronic attack.”
Prior to getting the upgrades, EW fighters here had to request intel from Air Force and Navy assets. The new tools “give the brigade commander a tactical advantage, in that he can now do real-time electronic support. It means he can be much more reactive and much more effective,” Bolser said.
Having EW resources readily to hand also helps soldiers to better understand and respond to the complex EW threat landscape.
“This is something that most lieutenant colonels haven’t had to consider before. They have not had any exposure to EW and a large majority of our soldiers don’t realize the large electronic footprint they have with all their cell phones and radios,” Bolser said.
With the new equipment it’s easier for EW specialists to demonstrate the real-world implications of spectrum use, to help soldiers better understand their own, and the enemy’s, electromagnetic vulnerabilities.
“We need to show them that if they are pushing all this stuff into the atmosphere, there are others who are watching,” Bolser said. “We need to tell them: This is how you can be seen and it’s also how you can see the enemy. The more aware people become, the better we’ll be as a force.”
This improved level of EW situational awareness could have significant consequences in terms of how Americans forces fight.
In various trials, EW experts have shown that the new tools can effectively identify enemy locations based on radio signatures, exploiting signal information as practical combat intel. That’s a valuable capability, but only if it’s made available to decision-makers at the tactical edge. Tools like VROD and Sabre Fury make that possible.
“You need to be able to push those guys to the front line, to make them part and parcel of the effort,” Bolser said. “That’s what the new technology is for, to make sure those guys are decisively engaged, that the ground commander understands what that electronic environment looks like.”
Taken together, the new tools are giving EW fighters in Europe a clearer view of the electronic landscape. While they won’t make troops impervious to electronic attack, they can help shape the way commanders in the field manage their EW visibility.
“We don’t have a magic button that lets us disappear, but there are some best practices,” Bolser said. “It’s everything from using your terrain to shield your signal, to varying your power output. You don’t need to have all your guys on high power everywhere across the entire battlefield. By managing radio signatures that way, we can both protect ourselves, and better engage our adversaries.”