WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is looking to air- and ground-launched platforms, such as drones, to more effectively wage electronic warfare, amid a Pentagon push to modernize arsenals and the expectation that long-held technology investments are set to pay off.

Officials involved in the effort point to two experiments: air-launched effects, or ALE; and ground-launched effects, or GLE. By outfitting them with kit capable of jamming, spoofing or collecting intelligence, the platforms could help deter and neutralize technologically advanced adversaries, such as China and Russia, during a conflict.

“Ground to space, rear to deep: From a threat standpoint, we have to be prepared to operate in that entire range,” Brig. Gen. Ed Barker, the deputy program executive officer for intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors, said during an Aug. 30 event at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. “As we operate in this environment, we have to be enabling the larger Army priorities.”

Air-launched effects are relatively low-cost drones or payloads catapulted midair by larger aircraft, either crewed or uncrewed. They are meant to detect, disrupt, deceive or destroy, and can sync with a larger family of battlefield tools. The Army considers them a crucial piece of the future vertical lift effort meant to overhaul the helicopter fleet. The service is expected to spend billions of dollars in the next five years on both the future long-range assault aircraft and the future attack reconnaissance aircraft, according to fiscal 2023 budget justification documents.

Coordination on air-launched effects between the electronic warfare camp and aviation officials is in the early stages.

“We have some tech maturity investments happening next year in ALE, and we’re going to share it,” Mark Kitz, Barker’s boss and the leader of Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, said at the same August event. “They’re going to do sort of the vehicle piece, and we’re going to do some electronic warfare prototyping. And we’re going to integrate that together. So that’ll be a partnership.”

The prototyping will shape the roles each community plays, or to whom the most work falls.

“If we’re just going to buy commercial technologies to integrate, I think aviation could probably handle all of that,” Kitz said. “If we’re going to do some unique things, or some exquisite target or exquisite sort of EW, we’ll do it as a partnership.”

Already, the service is tinkering. The Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team, a group focused on replacing legacy Army aircraft, worked with air-launched effects during the 2021 iterance of Project Convergence, a large-scale Army demonstration. During that exercise series, officials want to propel the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept by putting cutting-edge tech to the test in demanding conditions. In addition, at an earlier Edge 21 exercise, air-launched sensors were used to collect and distribute real-time information.

The Army has studied air-launched effects for years. In 2020, the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command published a related request for information detailing a future battlefield rife with “highly lethal and complex” targets.

Those targets, the documents stated, “will include networked and mobile air defense systems with extended ranges and long- and mid-range fires systems that will deny freedom of maneuver.”

Even less mature are the ground-launched effects, which Kitz said lack actual requirements. Early stage experimenting with the ground-launched systems coupled with industry consultation could inform the path forward.

“We’re just looking at doing some prototyping to figure out: OK, what types of effects, what types of collection, could we get?” he said. “Very small. There’s not a ton of power. So what could we actually deliver? These are the types of things that we’re asking industry: What can you do?”

Kitz has yet to be involved in a GLE industry day, an indication of the endeavor’s infancy.

Electronic warfare in the wild

Air- and ground-launched effects are part of a grander vision for U.S. electronic warfare. EW, as it is known, is a fight for control of the electromagnetic spectrum, relied upon for weapons guidance, communications, situational awareness and more. While EW lacks the bluster of bursting bombs or thundering tanks, it can be pivotal, considering the sensitive digital portfolio of modern militaries.

The Army is rethinking its networks, sensors and EW armory after decades of counterterrorism operations in the Middle East — a period when electronic systems were at less risk of harassment, and when U.S. and allied troops engaged forces outfitted with less-advanced gear.

Sgt. Vargas, a U.S. Army paratrooper assigned to 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, uses electronic warfare equipment at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, July 28, 2020.

The U.S. Defense Department is preparing for potential fights against China and Russia. The two world powers have constructed anti-access and area-denial infrastructure in an attempt to counter U.S. strengths and keep at bay forces or weapons that could overwhelm.

“Really, what the Army is asking for electronic warfare is: How do you deliver an integrated architecture that will help me operate in the air and on the ground? And how can electronic warfare enable some of those future operations, whether that’s a [future attack reconnaissance aircraft], whether that’s an [optionally manned fighting vehicle], whether that’s long-range precision targeting, in terms of long-range sensing?” Kitz said. “All of that sort of integrated architecture is what we’re attempting to deliver.”

PEO IEW&S tests and fields a variety of defense kit, including navigation suites, missile warning systems and biometric tools. The office’s reach is long, and its portfolio touches “everything from the sights on an Abrams tank” to “identity access of somebody driving on the Redstone Arsenal,” Barker said.

Among other Army EW pursuits are programs known as the Terrestrial Layer System-Brigade Combat Team, or TLS-BCT; the Terrestrial Layer System-Echelons Above Brigade, or TLS-EAB; and the Multi-Function Electronic Warfare-Air Large, or MFEW-AL. Each serves its own purpose.

The service in July awarded a nearly $59 million contract to Lockheed Martin to furnish prototypes for TLS-BCT. In August, the Army inked separate deals with Lockheed and General Dynamics Mission Systems for TLS-EAB concepts and demonstrations.

The self-contained MFEW-AL pod is made by Lockheed, too. Together, the trio will provide to soldiers a bevy of electronic warfare, signals intelligence and cyber capabilities.

“The Army is developing force structure, developing doctrine, developing training — whether it’s leader, individual or collective training,” William Utroska, a leader at PEO IEW&S, said Aug. 30. “And at the same time, we’re trying to develop systems to address our needs from an EW and cyber perspective.”

The Air Force is similarly doubling down on its EW portfolio, after spending years asleep at the wheel, according to Gen. CQ Brown, the chief of staff.

The service is now organizing a campaign to identify deficiencies, requirements and funding sources, said Lt. Gen. Leah Lauderback, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber effects operations.

“We are nowhere near where we need to be with that,” she said Sept. 20 at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “We are just starting the sprint. It’s with the acquisition community, it’s with the operational community.”

Lessons from Ukraine

Given the Army’s need for flexibility and readiness, backed by a philosophy known as multidomain operations, Kitz does not expect to buy massive quantities of rigid gear. Instead, the executive officer thinks small batches of upgradeable, alterable kit will be the correct choice.

“I don’t think we’re going to ever be in a situation where we’re going to buy thousands of ALEs,” he said, “because the threat is going to continually change.”

A prime example is in Ukraine, where even “six months ago, the environment looked very different than it looks now,” Kitz said. Both cyberwarfare and electronic warfare have played roles in the bloody Russia-Ukraine conflict, leaving government websites paralyzed, command-and-control methods jeopardized, and GPS signals jammed.

Ukraine’s defense minister in July said the military was providing U.S. and other friendly nations with information about Russian tactics, including the use of electronic warfare.

“We are asking you to listen to Ukraine and act now. We have been warning our partners about everything that has come to pass,” Oleksii Reznikov said at an Atlantic Council event. “Russia has to be defeated on the battlefield. Ukraine has proved that this is possible.”

Such information can influence what the U.S. sends to the front lines in Eastern Europe — like the electronic jamming equipment Pentagon officials in May said they would dispatch. It can also shape what the U.S. Army, specifically, invests in back home.

“We have got to be able to have systems or capabilities that can adapt,” Kitz said. “What we’re trying to understand in these prototyping activities is: How can we get to an adaptable system?”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.