The Pentagon is expected to spend $47 billion over the next five years to modernize its electronic warfare systems. Without this funding, experts say that the U.S. military, already trailing Russia and China in some areas, would struggle on a future battlefield.
But several experts and government personnel now insist the Department of Defense needs a top-down vision to the services that would help guide operations, investments and capabilities within the electromagnetic spectrum.
“On the policy side, not to be terse, but there isn’t necessarily an overarching policy strategy that I can see,” said Will Mackenzie, research associate in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. “There isn’t necessarily as comprehensive an approach vis-à-vis a Russia or China.”
Leaders from Russia and China have said that in future conflicts they will target communications systems first to prevent opponents from coordinating and to stop radars from detecting threats.
“To start a war without controlling the electromagnetic spectrum is tantamount to defeat,” said Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired colonel and member of the Russian Center for Political-Military Studies.
But Mackenzie noted the strategies the Pentagon has released — a 2013 electromagnetic spectrum strategy developed by the chief information officer and a 2017 electronic warfare strategy for the department — have mostly called for investing more in exactly the same types of capabilities as the department used in the past.
After the Cold War, the department hardly focused on electronic warfare and divested much of its EW capabilities. During counter-insurgency fights of the last 20 years, the military used blunt jamming tools to thwart improvised explosive devices, which, in turn, inadvertently jammed friendly systems.
Laurie Buckhout, chief executive and president of the Corvus group and a retired Army colonel who specialized in electronic warfare, told C4ISRNET that electromagnetic spectrum operations were not considered part of the operating environment because, until the IED problem, adversaries were not focusing on them. This oversight can create an advantage for Russia and China if those nations are incorporating the electromagnetic spectrum into their battle plans, but U.S. military leaders are viewing it as an afterthought.
Righting the ship
Recognizing these shortcomings, Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act directed DoD to create an electronic warfare cross-functional team to help focus on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Congress said to “form an EW cross-functional team. We did not do that. But we did form the Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Cross-Functional Team. We view this [as] necessary because it takes in the holistic view of the electromagnetic spectrum,” the deputy director of the cross-functional team, Maj. Gen. Lance Landrum, told reporters in December. “It takes into account electronic warfare — electronic attack, protection and support — but it also takes into account the spectrum management roles and functions associated with EMS.”
The primary task for the cross-functional team is developing a new electromagnetic spectrum superiority strategy for the department, which is expected this summer.
Landrum said, from the view of the cross-functional team — which is led by Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the electromagnetic spectrum is “front and center in great-power competition.”
“Our freedom of action within the electromagnetic spectrum, our freedom of maneuver within the electromagnetic spectrum will underpin how we win, how we maneuver our forces, how we connect with our forces, how we communicate with our forces,” Landrum said. “As we are challenged in great power competition, our superiority in the spectrum can set us apart from our challengers.”
For some in government, a strategy for how to operate is more important than increased funding to spend on systems.
“I’ve never thought EW would be equal when it comes to budget, but it should have equality when it comes to doctrine and a strategy,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and a former one-star general specializing in electronic warfare, told reporters in October. “The money part of it is secondary right now. If you don’t have a doctrine, you don’t have leadership at the right areas, you don’t have the structure in the department, what you buy will be wrong and it will be wasted.”
In a Jan. 22 statement to C4ISRNET, Bacon said Congress sent a clear message to the Pentagon that defense leaders needed to quickly reclaim dominance in the spectrum and build on the progress that has been made in the last few months with a dedicated team.
“They’ve had 18 months to study the problem and put a strategy together, so this year we’re expecting to see an aggressive implementation plan with clear milestones and requirements,” he said.
What needs to be in a new strategy? Officials from inside and outside government have explained that another significant task is to help create standardization for the services in the way of doctrine, capabilities and terminology.
Previously, the services pursued their own path of electronic warfare by developing systems for their own purposes. Buckhout said this meant each of the services weren’t following up on electromagnetic threats at the same pace because each service had different objectives. The Air Force is centered on protecting its platforms while the Army, for example, typically uses the spectrum to create freedom to move as necessary across the battlefield.
Now the department is beginning to take more of a top-down approach to what a new strategy should look like.
“It needs to be a joint approach, not a service-unique approach,” Maj. Gen. John Morrison, chief of staff at U.S. Cyber Command, said of electronic warfare generally during a Jan. 21 conference. Prior to working at Cyber Command, Morrison led the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence and focused on helping the Army restore its electronic warfare prowess.
“That does not mean the services don’t bring their own unique capabilities to the fight. But it certainly means that no matter what we bring into something that is going to be heavily contested and congested by peer adversaries who have gone to school on how we’ve operated over the last 20 years, there’s got to be synchronization and it’s got to be integrated from the ground all the way to high flyers and all the way into space.”
Other officials have said that a new strategy will help develop a common lexicon across the department.
For these reasons, the top line of effort of the cross-functional team is creating a better governance structure around electronic warfare and EMSO.
“There is nobody singularly responsible or accountable for successful operations in the electromagnetic spectrum,” Cmdr. Scott Oliver, chief of staff for the cross-functional team, told reporters in December. “Those are some very tough conversations that we are having within the department ... of who is responsible and accountable to assuring that the joint force can operate successfully against challengers or competitors within the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Bacon identified where the Pentagon should improve.
“Specific areas we are looking for are better doctrine and training, closer joint integration, and a clear alignment with our war plans through improved modeling and simulation,” he said. “Many of us are also concerned with the glacial pace of our current acquisition programs and believe we need to do better to harness the innovation and agility of small and mid-sized companies to rapidly deliver combat capabilities in the EMS.”
Buckhout also noted that a standardization of what are called electromagnetic spectrum battle management tools, to visualize the spectrum, will be critical for planning.
The department is still a ways away from such as system, though, some have indicated the Army’s Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool, which helps forces see, understand and plan with the spectrum, is a strong candidate.
Once the Pentagon delivers a new strategy, the cross-functional team will have more work to do. For one, Congress requires status reports every 180 days. Moreover, Landrum said the report is just a start.
The team “may be a step forward, an improvement, the tangible evidence of the importance of it, but it is not the enduring end all solution,” he said. “The [cross-functional team] is a catalyst to … focus the department of the electromagnetic spectrum on our competitive advantage within the electromagnetic spectrum and the catalyst for change so that we address our competitive advantage against those challengers.”
The advent of the so-called great-power competition has brought the services together and electronic warfare is no outlier.
“It must be inherently joint. Anything short and, quite frankly, we are not going to be able to provide multiple dilemmas to our adversaries,” Morrison said.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.