WASHINGTON — If it weren’t for recent congressional mandates placed into law, the Department of Defense would not have made significant improvements to its electronic warfare enterprise, one top lawmaker asserted.

“We have had to force this on the services and the Joint Staff … if it wasn’t for Congress, none of this would be done,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, a former one-star Air Force electronic warfare officer, said during a May 11 virtual event hosted by the Hudson Institute.

Bacon noted there are some reports and reviews that are still two years overdue to Congress, emphasizing “my take way here is Congress cannot take our foot off the gas on this.”

Recently, Congress sought to consolidate electromagnetic spectrum operations oversight within the department, while in previous years members wanted reports on how the department was regrowing its capabilities.

Bacon noted that the Joint Staff has made some progress in temporarily appointing general officers to oversee electronic warfare, but he noted those were temporary and that momentum needs to continue.

“One of the issues that we’ve had where we’ve tried to fix over the last two years: No one was in charge of EW,” Bacon said.

Bacon’s colleague on the Armed Services Committee agrees.

“We really do need someone in charge. We need to identify an office and put a policy person in charge like a deputy assistant secretary to be responsible for the strategy implementation. We don’t have that right now,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., chairman of the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems, which oversees electromagnetic spectrum matters, said during the same event.

Without top leadership, Langevin said, the recently released DoD electromagnetic spectrum strategy will end up like its predecessors from 2013 and 2017: unimplemented.

“I’m determined that that’s not going to happen. We’re going to get it right this time,” he said.

Department leaders have been candid that the agency divested a lot of electronic warfare systems following the Cold War. However, some experts and observers, especially in Congress, have been frustrated with the pace at which the DoD is reinvesting these technologies that are critical against sophisticated nation-states.

“We’ve had lots of studies … We’ve got to stop studying at some point and start acting, start executing. That’s my frustration,” Bacon said. “There’s lots of analyses and studies in the Pentagon. I want to start seeing action and start working diligently to close this gap of a plan.”

Sophisticated adversaries have noted the spectrum is critical for U.S. forces and have sought high-tech methods to deny it, trying to jam or spoof communications.

In light of adversary investments, Langevin is not convinced the DoD is prioritizing the right funds and initiatives in kind.

“No, I don’t think they are prioritizing the right things in the budget,” he said, noting that his position is informed from past budget requests given the Biden administration has yet to release its first budget.

“On the acquisition side, we really have to move away from hardware-centric systems. EMS really requires software-centric systems that are flexible and networked,” Langevin said. “We need to move in the direction of having our acquisition be much more software centric, flexible and adaptable, recognizing that we’re going to need to upgrade and be flexible when new capabilities come online, when new threats are identified and mitigate them. That’s the way we move forward.”

He will push the DoD to focus on software-centered systems in the coming National Defense Authorization Act process, he said.

Embracing software could be a bulwark against expected flat or declining budgets, reliving “investment efficiency,” said Dave Tremper, director of electromagnetic warfare in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the bottom line of EW and is there enough investment and we’re falling short … But one of the things we’re looking at is how efficient are we being with that,” he explained at the same event. “Because EW is unique in that I can transfer capabilities between systems, I can transfer capabilities between services and I don’t need redundant systems.”

He said the department might be able to spend a dollar and get five dollars’ worth of capability because all the services benefit from that system, realizing larger efficiencies during budget austerity.

He highlighted the Army and Marine Corps’ open architecture mandates, which require vendors to offer products compatible with a software standard, which makes adding new capabilities or upgrades as easy as inserting a new card into the system.

Tremper noted that the DoD likely needs to change the way it orchestrates electronic protection, which is the discipline of electromagnetic warfare that involves protecting systems from spoofing or jamming.

Currently, electronic warfare teams do not manage electronic protection systems, which could lead to serious gaps.

“When we talk about EW and … countering Chinese EW systems, those Chinese EW systems aren’t attacking our EW systems, necessarily. They’re attacking our radar systems and our comms and our GPS and PNT systems,” he said. “What that means is that when we focus on EW investment and how do we achieve EMS superiority through EW, the answer is we may not be able to because where we need to be focusing on is the electronic protection in our radars and our comms and our GPS systems so that those can continue to survive in a contested environment.”

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

More In Electronic Warfare