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Denial of Spectrum Denial: The EW Gap That Should Worry Us All

Monday, March 5, 2018   (0 Comments)

by Steve "Tango" Tourangeau, Lt Col USAF (Ret.)  |  Winter 2018  |  Airlift/Tanker Quarterly

The swordsman stepped into the market square and brandished his weapon with swift and impressive maneuvers. He then took his stance, waiting to strike. Indiana Jones took one look at the situation, pulled out his gun, and shot him down before he could strike a single blow. While this is an entertaining scene from a favorite movie, the truth is it will play out for real with the United States and its adversaries in the next engagement; the U.S. thinks it is Indiana Jones with big guns supported by all powerful electronic warfare (EW) and electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO). The problem is that when our warriors enter the next fight (supported by our airlift and tankers), we are likely to discover that our adversaries have outpaced us in everything EW/EMSO and that we have become that ill-prepared swordsman.

EW/EMSO and the Spectrum
Delivering soldiers, materiel and fuel to the fight cannot be done without “owning” the spectrum. The spectrum, or the electromagnetic spectrum, is the medium through which all radio, radar, cellular, wireless data, visual, and communications signals pass; therefore, it is where EW operates. To use a newer, perhaps more encompassing term, it is the field of EMSO. The spectrum is categorized by frequencies and wavelengths, and each device we (and our adversaries) use (that is not connected to a wire) uses frequencies in the spectrum to transmit and/or receive signals in the form of radiated energy. It is what enables radar and radar jamming. It is what enables communications and communications jamming. Navigating and navigation jamming. In short, with it, we win. Without it, they win.

Denial of the Spectrum
For the last 25 years, the Air Force has operated with impunity in the battlespace, with virtually 100% spectrum availability. Confident in that conclusion, the Air Force abandoned its Cold War tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and migrated to policies, plans, and procedures that are 100% reliant on availability of the spectrum. Then there was the wakeup call: counter-IED fratricide resulted in our own communications channels being jammed, prohibiting us from communicating with our own forces. It came down to protecting the troops, or communicating. We had not trained to operate “comms-out”. We shut off our jammers and we got blown up. This was a specific, battlefield situation in which we were denied use of the spectrum because we had been denying the possibility that it could happen and therefore did not prepare for it. That loss serves as a critical foreshadowing of what engagements on any scale could turn into: spectrum denial and heavy loss…for us.

Spectrum Denial Events
Other world events have demonstrated just how far various adversaries have advanced their ability to jam our communications, block our data links, jam GPS signals (or even worse, spoof them) resulting in the loss of situational awareness, communications overall, and our ability to navigate. Remember the two recent incidents with Iran taking over our stealth drone, and the Navy vessel that drifted into Iranian waters? This is just speculation, but it is possible that both of those events were caused by denial of, or manipulation of, spectrum. Perhaps worse than not knowing where you are, is believing you are somewhere you are not. And last but not least, our critical radar operations such as acquiring aircraft positions, guiding missiles, and air-ground mapping would be severely impacted. It goes without saying that we would be less effective with our own jamming signals, just adding more confusion to the mix. 

Let’s look at the activities of our most sophisticated adversaries: Russia and China. Neither country has been saddled with the expense of the Middle East wars (even though Russia has certainly been active to some extent in Syria). Therefore, they have had the luxury of being able to direct significant resources to non-kinetic warfare research, testing and real-world spectrum commandeering activities, as follows:  READ MORE...

With over 13,000 members internationally, the Association of Old Crows is an organization for individuals who have common interests in Electronic Warfare (EW), Electromagnetic Spectrum Management Operations, Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA), Information Operations (IO), and other information related capabilities. The Association of Old Crows provides a means of connecting members and organizations nationally and internationally across government, defense, industry, and academia to promote the exchange of ideas and information, and provides a platform to recognize advances and contributions in these fields.