WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense’s ability to fend off attacks on the electromagnetic spectrum has atrophied over decades, leaving troops vulnerable on the high-tech battlefields of tomorrow, according to President Joe Biden’s pick to be the nation’s highest-ranking military officer.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, nominated in May to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators this week at his confirmation hearing that the military “has lost some muscle memory” when it comes to electronic warfare after spending years fighting lesser-equipped forces, namely in the Middle East.
Prioritization of elaborate electronic warfare systems fell off following the Cold War. World powers such as China have since moved to fill the gap — Beijing’s Strategic Support Force was established in 2015, for example — after recognizing the value of spectrum domination. Modern militaries rely upon the spectrum to execute everything from communications to weapons guidance to navigation to deception.
“Electromagnetic warfare operations are dynamic. U.S., allied, partner, and adversary capabilities in the electromagnetic maneuver space are constantly changing, which creates perpetual challenges to get the right capability to the right warfighter at the right time to be operationally relevant against the right threat,” Brown wrote in answers submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held the nomination hearing July 11.
“It depends on the adversary,” he continued, “but against our most advanced adversaries, the Joint Force would likely face challenges protecting itself from electromagnetic attack.”
If confirmed, Brown would replace the current Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley. The matter is complicated by Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who is blocking more than 200 senior military confirmations until the Pentagon drops its travel policy for troops seeking abortion services in states where it is now illegal to administer them. Brown said the blockade is detrimental to overall readiness, or the capacity to fight, recover and shuttle supplies across the globe.
Brown in the past described electronic warfare as a means to flip the script on costs while still staying effective or deadly. The work remains to be finished, he said Tuesday, noting “the biggest block to doing this is a mindset shift.”
“Often we think of electromagnetic warfare as a supporting effort to enable some other weapon system or capability,” he said. “In modern warfare, electromagnetic warfare may be the main effort to achieve the desired strategic effects, especially in the pre-conflict phase where we ideally deter a fight from happening in the first place.”
Air Force officials in September announced a so-called sprint to identify electronic warfare deficiencies and generate means of improvement. Before that, the service activated the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, a first-of-its-kind entity designed to optimize electromagnetic capabilities and provide maintenance and technical expertise.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin 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.