Electronic warfare is often held up as a core category of modern warfare — technology that has the potential to transform battlefield operations.

But if you ask William Conley, director of electronic warfare in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, the military will soon be moving on.

“Electronic warfare has a legacy connotation,” he said in an interview following his keynote speech at the C4ISRNET Conference held in Arlington, Virginia, June 6. He defined EW as the actions taken through electronic attack, or jamming, as well as the EW support sensing, or the anti-jam electronic protection.

Where the U.S. military is heading in what Conley described as “a multifunction world” is driven by software-defined radios that enable a wide variety of functions through a single device. That places great emphasis on electromagnetic spectrum operations, or EMSO, and a new challenge to overcome: “How do we do all those things dynamically through a finite number of apertures, but also how do we battle manage all of these things happening in the electromagnetic spectrum today?”

EMSO, which involves multiple services operating together to exploit or manage the electromagnetic operational environment, is a newer concept — the next, more complex phase of EW development. But beyond the technical capabilities, Conley points to the need for a widespread shift in approach on the battlefield.

It’s a process.

“Doctrinally, we’re making progress. On the strategy side, we’re making progress. We’re there for fielding of capabilities, [with] some systems based upon that multifunction future,” Conley said. He specifically pointed to the Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool as promising — it’s a command-and-control planning capability that allows commanders and soldiers to visualize on a screen the effects of electronic warfare in the field.

But for EMSO to gain traction, military leadership will need to train operators and commanders “to make use of these new and different ways to understand their operational environment, the command relationships they have, and the things they can control,” Conley said.

The president’s fiscal 2020 budget request includes annual investment in EW capabilities of about $5 billion - $6 billion, based upon specific research and development and prototyping efforts. The total spend is actually far higher, Conley added, when you consider the EW packages integrated into existing platforms are difficult to pinpoint. The F-35 is one obvious example.

Current investments are driven now by great power competition, particularly as Russia continues to develop EW capabilities and showcase those capabilities in Syria and elsewhere.

“The technology matured through the ‘90s, and became something that is possible in the last two decades," Conley said. "But now, as we look at the great power competition, that changes how we need to dynamically maneuver and the density of units we need to maneuver with.”

“Our way of war assumes a level of spectrum access to allow us to fight in the way we desire,” he continued. “Anyone who closely studies the United States sees that ability to deny those links — sensing, seekers — as a potential way to challenge us. But there’s a question, which is, does EW, EMSO, favor the offense or the defense? It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next decade or two.”