U.S. Air Force attempts to awaken spectrum ops after decades of waning electromagnetic warfare

WASHINGTON – U.S. Air Force electromagnetic spectrum operations have been so scarce over the past few decades that a senior senior official said it was “fell asleep at the wheel“On electronic warfare.

Among the steps to overcome the 30-year decline and modernize platforms dating back to the Vietnam War, the Air Force has reorganized its way of managing such operations and prioritizes easier-to-update technology to stay ahead of China, Russia and others. skilled nations.

At the same time, the details of the Air Force’s plan are limited, as the service has not publicly shared the electromagnetic spectrum superiority strategy it completed this spring. Lawmakers called on the service to step up its efforts.

The military, by contrast, has been widely discussing its plans in recent years to keep up with its competitors, openly outlining an almost complete reconstruction of spectrum operations – from new systems to new staff and units. But the Air Force does not provide numbers of the highest lines for its costs for electromagnetic spectrum efforts.

The new strategy comes as nations note the possibility of disrupting US forces across the spectrum by adopting high-tech methods to block access and disrupt or falsify communications. They use advanced radars to detect US assets from a great distance to prevent penetrating attacks, and the US military’s chances of success are reduced when they cannot communicate reliably with friendly forces on electromagnetic waves or locate targets as ammunition or other systems are clogged.

Now software-defined systems that control electronic maneuvers that could save money on ammunition are a big part of the Air Force’s response to these challenges.

As Chief of Staff, General Charles “CQ” Brown put it earlier this year: “In some respects, the electron is much cheaper than a very expensive missile.” By embracing new capabilities with simplified software upgrades, the Air Force could keep pace with the latest technology to chase enemies through their spectrum activities and better screen. for communication, navigation and data transfer through the waves.

Colonel William Young, a special combat adviser at the Air Force, cited software-defined radios as one example of adaptive technology, calling them “the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.”

“You can think of all the different activities you can do in and through the electromagnetic spectrum – communications, detection, jamming … you can make it do different things or the equivalent of a different blade just by changing the software,” he said. April at the C4ISRNET conference.


Despite the lack of detail on the Air Force’s spectrum plan, the service’s actions over the past few years and senior officials’ comments are helping to build a picture of a new course. The Air Force adopted three intangible findings from its 2018 Spectrum Excellence Survey:

  1. Establish an EMS Excellence Directorate at the Air Force Headquarters for more uniform oversight.
  2. Combine EMS services and software programming into one organization to improve results.
  3. Create educational service programs to develop EMS “military spirit” and include EMS in more exercises to raise the profile of the concept.

Officials said establishing the right management and organizational structures is the necessary basis for building.

“What we looked at was that there was no shortage of previous research that had identified gaps in the material,” Young said. “What we found was missing [were] these three other things; we failed to build a sustainable momentum. I can buy something, but then, if you don’t fix all the other structures around it, then you are not able to continue to advance that initial investment or that ability that you bought so that it can actually reap the great return on investment, which the technology originally promised. “

The new Directorate for Spectrum Excellence, located in the Staff A5 strategy section, reviews e-war and electromagnetic strategy on a daily basis. And the Air Force has set up its spectrum management office at headquarters level in the A2 / 6 intelligence and cyber production section. The office protects and provides access to spectrum for the Air Force and other combat teams.

Organizational change has already “paid huge dividends,” Colonel Kenneth Miller, commander of the Spectrum Management Service, told C4ISRNET. The addition of the office to the air headquarters “puts us on an equal footing with our peers in the army and navy,” he said, noting that his office is with his colleagues in those services to help link their efforts.

The office has graduated from simply assigning frequency frequencies to spectrum activity support systems that assist in e-warfare. Although the office is not directly related to material needs and purchases, its addition to Air Staff helps leaders share expertise with the acquisition community.

After the change of headquarters, the Air Force in 2019 created its first unit for information warfare, 16th Air Force, the e-War Operations Center, and a Wing of the Spectral War will be activated around June.

More and more people inside and outside DoD are looking at the potential of the electromagnetic spectrum as part of a larger information environment.

“One of the things we’re trying to emphasize more and more is in addition to each of the challenges that we’ve identified directly with things like EMSO. [electromagnetic spectrum operations] is the overlap and interconnection with the wider information environment, “said Joseph Kirschbaum, director of the Department of Defense Capabilities and Government Accountability Management.

The creation of the 16th Air Force to integrate different capabilities was encouraging, he said. “It’s a very good sign that they’re starting to think about these things as a whole.”

Investing in new systems

Organizational moves alone are not enough, said the head of the service’s office. As the Air Force upgraded older systems, Brown did the vaunted software-defined capabilities to adapt to rapidly changing threats and possibly save money.

“We need to think about the cost curve when we weigh kinetic and non-kinetic maneuvers,” Brown said earlier this year.

Brig. General Mike Manion, director of Air Force EMS, said the service could not upgrade all of its systems, but had “significant efforts” at the moment to update many platforms. “Especially if this is going to be a software-defined battle, as we think it is, then we need infrastructure and human capital that can be quickly reprogrammed to counter these threats.”

One example is the EC-130H Compass Call, the only specialized air strike aircraft of the Air Force. The service upgraded the system to a version called the EC-37, transferring the platform from the C-130 to the Gulfstream 550.

“It will be software-defined, hardware-dynamic, and its capabilities will benefit from the rapid reprogramming of the won spectral war,” Manion said.

The air force needs revolutionary tactics to create “many dilemmas for the enemy, using many planes and many openings for the coherent destruction and victory of the enemy,” he said.

Some outside experts have warned that the Air Force is not moving fast enough.

“The Air Force is developing its REB [electronic warfare] and EMSO capabilities for a more distributed set of platforms and systems, but not very fast. While the Marines, and to a lesser extent the Army, are directing more PE systems and pushing them down to the lower floors, the Air Force will still have its REB systems on large, manned multi-mission platforms, ”said Brian Clark, director. of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies at the Hudson Institute. The approach increases the risk of detecting pilots, he said.

Lawmakers acknowledged the progress, but urged the Air Force to do more.

“I appreciate the commitment of the chief to restore our paramount importance,” reporter Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, a former e-war employee of the Air Force, told C4SIRNET.

“Control of the electromagnetic spectrum is at the heart of every aspect of our military power in the air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, so this is not competition we can afford to lose,” he said. “We’ve recently seen some encouraging signs of life from the Pentagon, but I don’t believe we’re aggressive enough.”

Mark Pomerlo is a C4ISRNET reporter covering information warfare and cyberspace.