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Army Electronic Warfare Investment Lags Russian Threat

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Army photo

The Army disbanded its Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence (CEWI) units, like the one shown here, after the Cold War.

There is a great disconnect in the Department of Defense. Leaders at the highest levels realize we are falling behind — or have already fallen behind — Russia and China in electronic warfare, the invisible battle of detecting and disrupting the radar and radio transmissions on which a modern military depends. Even in the traditionally lower-tech world of land warfare, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told me EW was a pillar of the future Army, alongside the new domain of cyber and the traditional arts of fire and maneuver.

Robert Work

Robert Work

Yet the US Army, the largest armed service, has few EW sensors, no long-range jammers, and no funded plan to field them before 2023. While Army leaders now acknowledge the importance of EW, and units are training harder on how to operate when the enemy is jamming them, the service is investing very little in fighting back.

It’s true that Army modernization is squeezed tight. But even in a diminished budget, Army EW investment is a rounding error. Out of $17.6 billion in procurement requested for 2017, just 0.8 percent — $142 million — is listed under “electronic warfare,” very broadly defined: $99.9 million of that $142 goes to specialized radars to detect incoming mortar fire, which isn’t really EW. Out of a $7.6 billion 2017 request for Research, Development, Testing, & Evaluation (RDT&E), just 1.6 percent — $118 million — is EW-related. These numbers, small as they are, are actually up from prior years. Not reflected in these figures is recent infusion of $50 million to accelerate the Army jammer program — by all of three months.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. graphic

Army spending on electronic warfare (EW) in $ millions (2017 figure is budget request)

So while the Army’s 2017 budget request makes many much-needed investments in other areas, said analyst Jim McAleese, it still shortchanges electronic warfare.

“I can see cyber money. I can see Active Protection Systems money. I can see aircraft survivability money,” McAleese said at last week’s Association of the US Army conference in Huntsville, Ala. “The only place that I would tell you, sir, that there’s probably a weakness in the budget that I can see the Army spends very, very little on EW.”

The lack of investment has real-world consequences. “Are we closing the gap between Russian EW capability and US Army EW capability? Right now… no,” said Col. Jeffrey Church,head of electronic warfare on the Army’s Pentagon staff (section G-3/5/7). “The EW wall locker is still bare. The maneuver commander still does not have a tool at his disposal that he owns and controls on a daily basis to conduct electronic warfare.”

Meanwhile, the Russian army has fully equipped electronic warfare brigades, some of them at work in Ukraine with lethal effect.

Air Force photo

Gen. Paul Selva

“At the tactical level, the small-unit level, the Russians and the Chinese have a distinct advantage because they have deployed very capable electronic warfare tools,” said Gen. Paul Selva, speaking at the March 10 McAleese/Credit Suisse defense conference. Selva is Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a military futurist, and co-chairman of the Pentagon’s new Electronic Warfare Executive Committee (EW EXCOM). “That will mean that we will very likely have to deploy fairly elegant electronic warfare tools at the tactical level, which today we do not have.”

In other words, we are going to have to buy stuff. But buying stuff is not the most important element, Selva argued.

“The real magic in electronic warfare is how you integrate the tools, not the fact that you have them, and that’s the place where we need to put some energy,” Selva said. Even today, he said, when you look beyond the purely tactical to “the operational and strategic level, our ability to integrate our electronic warfare capabilities [gives us] actually still a marginal advantage” over our adversaries.

“Marginal” isn’t exactly reassuring, however, and Selva only gets there by counting all the services’ EW capabilities combined. When he talks about adversaries having “a distinct advantage…at the tactical level,” he’s talking about the level at which Army soldiers live and die.

The Army's NERO program tested a converted Navy jammer on a Grey Eagle drone, the Army version of the Predator.

The Army’s NERO program tested a converted Navy jammer on a Grey Eagle drone, the Army version of the Predator.

A Jammer of One’s Own

In electronic warfare, the other services fare much better than the Army. The Navy has SEWIP jammers on its warships and its EA-18G Growler jet — “EA” standing for “electronic attack” — which is soon to be upgraded with a Next Generation Jammer. The Air Force has a handful of EC-130H Compass Call turboprops. The Marines have Intrepid Tiger II jammers on their aircraft and ground-based jammers in their three Radio Battalions. All three services are fielding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has secret but much-hinted-at electronic and cyber warfare capabilities. All sorts of airplanes and helicopters carry EW pods, albeit usually for short-range defensive jamming.

EC-130 Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, used for an experimental cyber attack

EC-130 Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft

So why can’t the Army just rely on the other services? That was actually the plan in the 1990s drawdown, when having multiple electronic warfare programs was seen as a redundant cost. There are just three problems:

  1. high-priced, high-flying aircraft with high-power jammers are inefficient against small targets on the ground;
  2. a modern adversary like Russia or China could keep the air support away with long-range missiles;
  3. and even when America does own the air, the other services still may not show.

“We have lived real life experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Army has requested electronic attack, airborne electronic attack, and it hasn’t been there,” said Col. Church: The limited number of Navy and Air Force EW aircraft were often too distant or too busy with other missions to answer the Army’s call.

The Navy's new EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft during sea trials.

The Navy’s new EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft during sea trials.

By contrast, “a Russian commander doesn’t have to say, ‘hey, I want to do EW, ask the air force,'” Church said. “He owns the people and the resources to conduct electronic warfare operations.” That means Russian commanders can make EW a central element of their battle plans. Indeed, in Ukraine, the first salvos of a Russian attack are often not artillery shells or rockets but electrons: EW direction-finders trace Ukrainian transmissions and locate their sources for bombardment, then jammers shut down Ukrainian radios so they can’t call for help or coordinate a defense.

The US Army isn’t equipped, organized, or trained to conduct such operations. “Until I, as an Army maneuver commander, own and control electronic warfare soldiers with electronic warfare equipment, and I train with them, it’s going to be an afterthought, it’s going to be an add-on,” he said, “because the day I launch my attack… I can’t count on you being there.”

But there’s a Catch-22: As long as Army commanders are used to treating electronic warfare as an afterthought, they’re unlikely to invest heavily in EW — which means it stays an afterthought. The Army needs to change its budget and equipment, but first it needs to change its way of thinking. 

Army photo

An electronic warfare class at Fort Sill, Okla.

Changing the Army

Army leaders are at least talking about electronic warfare. “Every since the Ukraine, there’s been a lot more attention on EW,” Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, chief of Army Cyber Command, said at the AUSA conference. “There’s a lot of work ongoing now in EW…. a lot of movement in this area right now, a lot of discussion too about how do we do this more rapidly.”

Army photo

Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon

“The Ukrainian revelations have been a very good thing for the US Army,” said Laurie Moe Buckhout, a retired Army EW officer. “The EW folks are trying not to stand back and say ‘ha, ha, we told you so.’… I love that General Hodges [Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, US Army commander in Europe] was able to identify it, but we’ve been talking about the Russian threat for a decade.”

“The money is not necessarily the issue,” Buckhout told me. “Just because the budget is not there, it doesn’t mean it can’t be there relatively quickly….The Army definitely recognizes that EW is a huge issue, so they are prepared to fund it. ”

The real roadblock is that “the Army has not necessarily established a clear roadmap on how they want to address EW,” said Buckhout. “The Army is still working on articulating requirements,” the official wish-lists that must be approved before a program can proceed.

Army doctrine considers electronic and cyber warfare two sides of the same coin, "CEMA."

Army doctrine considers electronic and cyber warfare two sides of the same coin, “CEMA.”

That process is complicated by how responsibility for electronic warfare is split among the Army’s notoriously turf-conscious tribes. The EW school itself is at the Fort Sill “Fires Center,” home of the artillery, in part because artillery is one of the most technical branches. But it reports to the Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, home of the Signal Corps: Army doctrine joins cyber and electronic warfare at the hip as distinct but complementary ways to attack and defend wireless networks. Finally, because you need to detect the enemy’s transmissions before you can attack or defend against them, there’s a major role for signals intelligence at Fort Huachuca. (In fact, Army intel ran the old Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence (CEWI) units).

“It’s an interesting way the baby’s split,” said Buckhout. “There’s been some internal Army politics about that for some time, [but] I think the Army is getting past that.”

“We are moving,” said Col. Church. “We got $50 million that we didn’t have before. We are now going to compete for an additional $2.5 million to do the MFEW [Multi-Function Electronic Warfare, the offensive jammer]. We are talking about Defensive Electronic Attack.”

That last item, DEA, is the proposed replacement for the CREW counter-roadside-bomb jammers ought for Iraq and Afghanistan, which will wear out in the early 2020s.”If you go through the normal acquisition processes, we’ve got to make this decision now” to have a replacement ready in time, Church said. “The last time we talked [in mid-2015], we weren’t even having that discussion about DEA…. now we are.”

But the slow progress on long-term programs doesn’t put the tactical tools Gen. Selva talked about in the hands of Army soldiers any time soon.

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