Electronic Warfare

The US made the wrong bet on radiofrequency, and now it could pay the price

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon’s belief in its technology drove the Department of Defense to trust it would have control over the electromagnetic spectrum for years to come, but that decision has left America vulnerable to new leaps in technology from China and Russia, according to a top military official.

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has now concluded that the Pentagon needs to ensure it is keeping up with those near-peer nations, let along reestablishing dominance of electronic warfare and networking.

“I think we assumed wrongly that encryption and our domination over the precision timing signals would allow us to evade the enemy in the electromagnetic spectrum. I think that was a bad assumption,” Selva said Thursday at the annual Center for a New American Security conference.

“It’s not that we disarmed, it’s that we took a path that they have now figured out,” Selva said. China and Russia instead focused on deploying “digitally managed radio frequency manipulation, which changed the game in electronic warfare.”

He added that a DoD study looking at the next decade concluded “We have some work to do.”

Specifically, the United States needs to discover what Selva dubbed “alternative pathways” for communications and command and control systems.

“It doesn’t have to be a [radiofrequency] game. It’s an RF game because we choose to make it so. And we’re going to have to do some targeted investments in expanding the capacity of the networks that we use for command and control and battle management,” he said. “If we fail to do that, we’re going to kick ourselves into the force-counterforce game inside the electromagnetic spectrum for the balance of the next couple of decades.

“We have to adapt to that, and adapt quickly. The work has been done to characterize the problem, and the problem is, we’re locked in this point-counterpoint fight with two potential competitors who have taken alternative paths. So we have to unlock a different way to do that work.”

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