Knowing is half the battle, and overcoming electromagnetic interference is apparently 11 percent. Electromagnetic interference is now a durable part of the modern battlefield, and one that is degrading the ability of American and allied forces to operate at full capacity as they once had. The news comes from the latest report by the Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve, published May 7.
“Due to maintenance issues, disabled video broadcasting devices, and electromagnetic interference, about 11 percent of Coalition ISR coverage this quarter was lost, specifically affecting areas along the Iraq-Syria border and in northern Iraq,” the report read, citing a statement from Coalition Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve.
The task force cited a lack of assets in Central Command’s area of responsibility, and rationed those assets to provide ISR targeting support. To adapt, special operations has had to ask CENTCOM for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance provided by their platforms, which notably operate at higher altitudes. The report highlights that these platforms provide less detail, which “resulted in a greater reliance on human intelligence and on information provided by the [Iraqi Security Forces].”
What happened? The United States has operated continuously over at least some of the skies of Iraq since January 1991, though the specific missions have varied. CENTCOM leaders attribute the lack of coverage in part to an Iranian presence in Eastern Iraq, which it also cites as a factor for ISIS forces being able to reconstitute near the Iraq-Iran border. (Given that Iran and ISIS have hostile postures towards one another, the most generous interpretation of the report is that the contested nature of the space on the border is what allows for ISIS to eke out a geographical presence.)
Electromagnetic interference is an increasingly common feature of modern conflicts. Army soldiers deployed in Europe have encountered it, and it’s a capability other nations have actively cultivated as a way to mitigate U.S. advantages. The Army is working on finding new and good-enough solutions it can deploy. Electromagnetic interference is one of the main factors driving the development of autonomous technology, and it’s one of the threats elevating the importance of conflict in the information domain.
As for Iraq, one way to mitigate the effects of electromagnetic interference is to simply have more ISR platforms on hand. At present, Iraq’s own military is only able to cover 60 percent of the country with full-motion video captures by tactical-level drones. The report also highlights the addition of ISR technologies and capabilities to attack helicopters, turning strike assets into intelligence assets as well.
More assets can make it hard to prevent all ISR from being collected, but jammers are likely a durable presence on the battlefields of today and tomorrow. Technology that can work around jammers will likely be the next order of the day.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.