WASHINGTON — Shooting down an aircraft or blowing up a target might not be the pinnacle of winning in future conflicts. Rather, sowing confusion among adversaries might be more associated with triumph on the battlefield, according to an Air Force official.
“I would argue, in this 21st-century battlespace that we’re preparing for, infusing that doubt, hesitation, that confusion is winning for us,” Brig. Gen. Tad Clark, director of the electromagnetic spectrum superiority directorate at the Air Force, or A2/6L, said during a presentation at the Association of Old Crows Symposium Nov. 30. “If we get the adversary … to stop for a moment, reassess if the odds are in their favor, try to determine if they can make a move or not and if it’s an advantageous time for them to do so or not, we’re slowing their decision matrix down.”
Achieving this type of confusion, however, is critically dependent upon superiority in the electromagnetic spectrum, Clark said, adding that superiority in the spectrum underpins every core mission within the military.
Non-kinetic capabilities will be crucial in realizing this type of confusion among adversaries and may even prevent shooting wars from occurring in the future.
Clark’s organization is helping the Air Force understand what capabilities could be available now and what investments to make, which will prove important as the military is facing tighter budgets going forward.
Created a couple of years ago, the directorate aims to provide unified oversight of electromagnetic spectrum issues from the headquarters Air Force level.
Gen. Charles Brown, chief of staff of the Air Force, has previously said, “In some aspects, an electron is much cheaper than a very expensive missile,” meaning the Air Force could realize some actual cost savings in non-kinetic capabilities.
He also explained at a conference earlier this year that such non-kinetic capabilities could “reign supreme,” according to Breaking Defense, adding , “Now we’re somewhere stuck in the thinking that mass needs to be physical. What if we did not have to produce sorties to achieve the same effect? What if a future small diameter bomb looks like ones and zeros?”
Clark noted that given the finite amount of funds, the service has to make sure it invests its money wisely.
“That’s what our directorate is trying to do. At the end of the day, winning for us is going to be when we see our Department of Air Force make investments in Air Force and Space Force types of capabilities that allow us to further technology, capability to get after where we need to be in the future,” he said.
To do this, Clark said his organization is trying to communicate to senior leaders what is in the art of the possible today, noting there are some great capabilities that currently exist.
One such capability set lies in the convergence between cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum.
“The connective tissue between cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum is amazing. There are tremendous capabilities that we can achieve now that allow us to get the desired end state, the desired effects, non-kinetic effects, for something that is pennies on the dollar,” he said. “It is something that we were wrestling with for a while trying to get our arms around all the things that fit in that line of effort and as we peel that onion back, there are a lot of examples of things that we can do both with cyberspace and electromagnetic spectrum that are, again, are repeatable, sustainable and affordable.”
While initially created within the A5 strategy section of the Air Staff, the directorate has now moved to the A2/6 section, which encompasses cyber and electromagnetic spectrum operations.
LEGOs and the future of spectrum warfare
Officials have consistently noted that they regard capabilities as a networked system of systems aboard several platforms that need to have the right concept behind them in order to be truly effective.
For the newly established 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, connecting disparate capabilities spread across various platforms will be a key undertaking going forward.
Created in June, the wing will enable, equip and optimize the fielding of electromagnetic spectrum capabilities with the aim of providing a sustainable and competitive advantage in the non-kinetic realm.
As part of its role, its commander used the analogy of LEGO blocks as a means of connecting platforms and capabilities to make the most of resources in the inventory.
“The idea of where we’re going is really how can you put those LEGOs that exist on different aircraft together into on-demand, ad-hoc kill webs,” Col. William Young, commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, said during the same conference.
Young explained that during a meeting, one group commander threw a box of LEGOs on a table and used the mobile application Brickit, which looks at all the different combinations of LEGOs on the table and provides a list of all the different things that can potentially be built.
“Put yourself in the position of an adversary who now thinks they have deep insight United States Air Force or entire Department of Defense but now has to face this,” Young said, referring to a futuristic state in which capabilities aboard platforms are LEGO pieces that can be reassembled and reconfigured in a number of different fashions. “We traditionally package our things at the platform level. What we’re talking about here with this is type of warfare is the ability to package at the subsystem level.”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.