HOHENFELS, Germany, and WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army’s new electronic warfare capability, developed by the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office, was challenged in a recent Eastern European exercise.
The 2nd Cavalry Regiment conducted an active electronic attack — or jamming — within a European country for the first time since the Cold War this month during Saber Strike in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. The event shows the Army is making headway on refining a rapid electronic warfare capability it put into the field in Europe just one year ago.
The Army’s RCO — which was officially created in August 2016 — is designed to hone in on the service’s largest requirements with the intent to deliver capabilities within a one- to five-year horizon.
At its launch, the RCO prioritized electronic warfare; position, navigation and timing; and cyber that were neglected in the counterinsurgency operations of the past 15 years. Now that the Army anticipates battling more near-peer adversaries in contested environments, it is refocusing on ensuring its capability overmatch against those possible enemies.
The RCO developed an electronic warfare prototype and sent it to Europe to help soldiers view the EW picture in the spring of 2017, which was then tested out in the Army’s major exercise Saber Guardian in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in July. Subsequent versions were sent over in in the summer and fall of last year.
The EW system was also extensively tested at Fort Bliss, Texas, last summer.
Fast forward, and the Army has fielded a refined electronic warfare capability with a platoon in the 2CR and one in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, both of which are permanently stationed in Europe.
There is another platoon with the 1st Infantry Division.
While EW prototypes were tested during Saber Guardian, it was mostly to check the interoperability of the EW systems, which come in the form of dismounted, vehicular and command-post capabilities.
The systems were evaluated during the first Joint Warfighting Assessment in Europe in May ahead of the Saber Strike exercise where Master Sgt. Kevin Howell, a Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for EW within the Cyber Center of Excellence, told Defense News at the JWA that the Army is working to develop how various units might employ the systems and refine tactics, techniques and procedures.
“The electromagnetic spectrum is different wherever you go,” he said, so units can conduct a survey to determine what that spectrum looks like, make a determination on how to employ the system, locate the enemy and hide in the spectrum.
“That is the great thing about it, [which] is there hasn’t been much evolution of the equipment, per say, but it’s the education. Soldiers are getting the experience that they are getting. We are getting smarter, we are getting better,” Howell said.
“There is no how-to manual,” he added. “That is what we are developing. It’s really up to the individual units.”
At Saber Strike, the Army’s EW systems were put to the test against one of the most challenging enemies, played by the Lithuanian army.
For Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Flory, an EW technician with 2CR at Saber Strike, being able to pass information from the electromagnetic spectrum to an operations center was valuable for a commander to turn around and target the enemy.
And finally being able to conduct electronic jamming against a difficult adversary was “definitely value added” as well as being able to conduct some calls for fires based off the locations identified using the systems, according to Col. Sean Lynch, an electronic warfare officer tasked to evaluate prototypes in Europe at various exercises. He also evaluated the prototypes a year ago at Saber Guardian.
But the most valuable aspect of testing the systems during Saber Strike was the ability to “fully stress the systems to their utmost,” he said.
The systems’ limitations so far in exercises were forecast due to the strength and current limitations of the system, but the prototypes are proving that the Army is moving in the right direction, Lynch and Flory told Defense News in a recent interview.
While much has been discovered and refined from the technical, networking and training standpoints, there’s still work to do, they indicated.
This time the EW systems were employed very much on the move, incorporating the systems onto dismounted soldiers and vehicles. The prototypes were tasked to support a variety of maneuver-force operations from a contested wet-gap crossing, an airfield seizure, and the defense of an airfield, among other operational scenarios, Lynch said.
Operators were given a lot of freedom and were able to use a variety of techniques and methods to employ the systems.
“It was really interesting to see how the guys on the ground decided to employ these systems in kind of less-than-specified situations, how they improvised to make them effective and support the maneuver commander,” Flory said.
The Lithuanians’ ability to jam the U.S. systems had an effect on the regiment’s operations, Flory said, and the commanders were able to feel real impact to being up against an adversary with such capabilities.
“It was sort of a different side of EW, how to protect ourselves, and it’s certainly something we are going to address more in training and nonmateriel solutions and things like that going forward,” he said.
Using the EW capability in the exercise, most importantly, according to Lynch, showed off how broadly the Army needs to approach the challenge of fighting in an electromagnetic spectrum.
“It’s not just a technical solution thing we have to address, it’s the training piece. It’s the organizational piece, it’s the networking, and getting all of those to work in a harmonious manner. That is where we need to go with this,” Lynch said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.