ARLINGTON: After two decades of neglect, electronic warfare is — slowly — on the mend, the Pentagon’s Deputy Director for EW said yesterday. That includes a growing budget, a new (classified) strategy from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, increased interest from the leaders of all four armed services, and, most immediately, an ongoing joint study of future jamming aircraft.
“Give me about a month, maybe two,” and he’ll have a lot more clarity on what’s called the Analysis of Alternatives for Joint Airborne Electronic Attack, William Conley told the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.
Some backstory on why this matters: Electronic warfare is the art and science of detecting, deceiving, and disrupting enemy radio-frequency (RF) transmissions — and since everything from wireless networks to radar relies on the RF spectrum, EW can make or break a modern military. After the Cold War, however, even though the Russians retained much of the old Soviet EW arsenal, the US Army and Air Force largely divested theirs. The Air Force in particular retired its last high- performance jamming aircraft, the EF-111 Raven, in 1998 — a small number of EC-130H turboprops remain in service — and largely ceded EW to Navy squadrons. For its own investments, the Air Force bet on stealth aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, that it deemed so undetectable they wouldn’t need Navy EW airplanes jamming enemy radar on their behalf, as one 4-star told Colin as recently as 2014.
As adversaries grow more electronically sophisticated, however, the Air Force has come round and started studying what it calls Penetrating Electronic Attack. PEA might be a dedicated manned aircraft unto itself like the old EF-111, a specialized variant of the future fighter known as Penetrating Counter-Air, a drone, or a complex mix of capabilities installed on different airframes. Much is classified, much is still to be determined.
One thing the Air Force has made clear, however, is they want a “stand-in” jammer that can penetrate (hence the name) into heavily defended airspace. The alternative would be a stand-off jammer that does its mission from a (relatively) safe distance like the Navy EA-18G Growler.
Conley, however, thinks the division between stand-off and stand-in is easily overplayed. It can create rigid service stovepipes that don’t reflect the fluidity of real combat — or the ingenuity of US troops. “I would personally advocate that we actually move away from assigning ‘this is a stand-off and this is a stand-in,'” he said. Instead of pigeonholing, he said, we must understand different capabilities in detail, then allow tacticians and operators the flexibility to use them together in creative ways.
So rather than let each service do its own thing without regard to the others, the Pentagon has started a joint (interservice) Analysis of Alternatives for all Airborne Electronic Attack. Conley made clear this does not mean there’ll be a single mega-program to build a single jamming aircraft for all services, the way the F-35 program is building fighters for all.
“The way it’s being executed is a joint AOA, so we’re answering the question holistically, but then it will turn into service-unique investment,” Conley told reporters after his public remarks. “So we’re not going to say that this is the Joint Program office for airborne electronic attack for every EW airborne electronic program in the future…. It’ll turn into service programs.”
In other words, while Conley didn’t say so explicitly, if the Air Force wants to build its own Penetrating Electronic Attack aircraft, it can. It just has to make sure it complements what the Navy, Marines, and Army are doing as part of a common all-service approach.
PEA probably won’t enter service until the 2030s, but the very fact the Air Force is interested at all represents a major turnaround. Indeed, senior leaders in all the services have become keenly aware of the importance of electronic warfare, Conley said: “There is an appreciation of the dependency on our electronic warfare capabilities to make sure that the remainder of the force, all the platforms, is survivable.”
In other words: The brass realize that if you don’t have electronic warfare — both to protect your own networks, sensors, and communications, and to disrupt the enemy’s — you’re probably dead.
“A Fight In The Electromagnetic Spectrum”
Smart weapons were once an American monopoly. Now Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others have their own precision-guided missiles, the sensors to guide them to targets, and the networks to command them.
The Pentagon shorthand for this evolving threat is “Anti-Access/Area Denial.” In essence, A2/AD refers to layered defenses of long-range land-based missiles, advanced aircraft, submarines, mines, and more designed to keep US forces from intervening in a given region of the world. But all the A2/AD systems depend on sensors to find targets and communications to coordinate their attacks. Those sensors and communications, Conley emphasized, operate in the radio frequency spectrum — which makes them prime targets for electronic warfare.
“A2/AD is basically a fight in the electromagnetic spectrum,” Conley said. “How do we go ahead and roll back that A2/AD bubble and make it smaller?” Stealth aircraft are one option, “removing as much of the signature as you possibly can. Alternatively, you can raise the noise floor, (which) basically has the same effect, it prevents detection. Alternatively you can put in so much garbage data that someone can’t sort through it in time to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.”
Just like our adversaries, the modern American way of war depends on radio frequency networks. For years, Conley said, Pentagon briefers got in the habit of putting lots of different weapons systems on a slide — tanks, planes, ships, etc. — and drawing little lightning bolts connecting them. In reality, he said, connecting disparate platforms into a network is not so easy, let alone keeping them connected when the network is under attack.
Concepts for future conflict like Multi-Domain Operations depend even more on electronic warfare. “Multi-domain” refers to the desire to network US forces operating in all environments — land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace — so they can coordinate their operations seamlessly, overwhelming the enemy with attacks from all directions. There’s no way to do that without a radio frequency network.
“If we want to realize multi-domain battle, we’re going to need reliable communications,” said Conley. Against an enemy who can hack and jam, we may not have all the bandwidth we’re used to, he warned, but the goal must be to transmit the essential data with confidence that it will arrive where needed, on time, and untampered with.
Getting to this goal will take money and time. The 2017 budget included over $5 billion for electronic warfare, less than one percent of the Defense Department total, but “we are growing,” Conley said. (That growth is shepherded by the high-level Electronic Warfare Executive Committee created in 2015, to which Conley reports.)
What’s more, EW money tends to have an outsized impact, Conley argued. First, increasingly powerful components are available affordably from the commercial sector, rather than requiring expensive military-unique development. Second, a small and relatively inexpensive EW upgrade to an aircraft, ship, or ground vehicle improves the survivability of the whole system. “(It’s) this little, couple million-dollar investment which ends up having an enormous impact on a multi-billion or trillion-dollar investment,” he said.
That said, it’s still a long, long game, said Conley: “We basically got to where we are in electronic warfare from 25 years of inattention. We will get out of it with 25 years of attention.”