NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now nearing the end of its second year, has ushered in a “new era of war” in which drones and electronic warfare are having outsize impacts, the secretary of the U.S. Navy said.

Both Russian and Ukrainian militaries are employing unmanned aerial systems to scout, target and attack while simultaneously using jammers and spoofers to defend the skies above or the trenches they’ve dug. The cat-and-mouse game is deadly, with each side trying to outthink and outbuild the other.

“The world around us is changing at a rapid pace, with an air of uncertainty as to what the future holds,” Carlos Del Toro said Dec. 12 at the Association of Old Crows conference in Maryland. “For the U.S. and our NATO allies, the conflict in Ukraine reinforces the emphasis that we place on developing and maintaining a ready, interoperable combat power that is capable of fighting in contested environments, including the electromagnetic spectrum.”

The U.S. Department of Defense is pouring billions of dollars into the development of drones, EW and a mix of the two.

The Navy this year tested Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Off-Board Electronic Warfare pod, meant to be mounted aboard helicopters to detect and deceive anti-ship missiles, and separatetly linked what one commander described as “unmanned and unmanned” at the Integrated Battle Problem exercise in the waters off California.

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro listens to a question from the audience Dec. 12, 2023, at the Association of Old Crows conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

“We recognize that spectrum operations, in particular electronic warfare, with any potential or actual adversary, is a constant series of moves and countermoves to develop strategic, operational and tactical advantages in the battlespace,” Del Toro said. The Navy’s established EW efforts include the Growler aircraft, made by Boeing, and the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program, or SEWIP, featuring contractors General Dynamics, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman.

Washington has committed both drones and EW equipment to Kyiv. While the Defense Department often discloses the makes and models of the former as they are shipped over seas, it does not publicly discuss the latter.

Del Toro and other national-security officials met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week. Continued U.S. aid for the besieged country could soon dry up amid congressional disagreements.

“He beseeched us, the entire United States government, to please help Congress pass the supplemental that is being debated on Capitol Hill, hopefully over the next week or so,” Del Toro said said of Zelenskyy. “I cannot begin to tell you how incredibly important that is. We cannot simply afford to leave our allies and partners on the battlefield of Ukraine without the support that they so deserve.”

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.

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