It’s hardly a hypothetical threat. Russian electronic warfare units locate Ukrainian troops by their transmissions and jam their radios so they can’t call for help, setting them up for slaughter. American soldiers are much better trained and equipped than Ukrainian ones, but they’re also much more dependent on wireless devices. Almost 80 percent of an armored brigade’s equipment depends to some degree on space. Over 250 systems use satellite communications; more than 2,500 use GPS. Even short-range tactical communications relay on radio.
We depend on networks for everything from communications to guiding precision weapons, to not shooting friendly units by accident, “to not getting lost in the woods — not that I’ve ever been lost,” said Gen. David Perkins, head of the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Our digital technology has been an “asymmetric advantage” adversaries couldn’t match, but all advantages in war are temporary, Perkins warned reporters at the Association of the US Army conference here. In the modern era, he added, the time a technological advantage lasts is getting “shorter and shorter and shorter.”
In the future, while we will hopefully never fight Russia or China, we almost certainly will fight someone who has bought advanced jamming and electronic warfare systems from them or even some of our own allies, said Tom Greco, Gen. Perkins’ chief of intelligence: “It is not a stretch to say that just about any capability that we have has the potential of being disrupted.”
So the Army is now deliberately disrupting its own units during training. For example, when brigades go to the National Training Center, they naturally bring all their usual GPS navigation systems — but now “we routinely take that capability away from them,” said Perkins. “We’re having to teach people at the Basic Course on up on how you operate if that is taken away, in other words introducing people to maps.”
Training Task No. 1
The first step in training is to get soldiers to realize they are being jammed or hacked, said Lt. Gen. David Mann, chief of Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC). There’s enough unintentional interference with radio transmissions — including different US signals interfering with each other — that it’s not obvious when an enemy is causing problems on purpose. Likewise, anyone who’s worked with computers know they can glitch with maddening frequency on their own, which makes it hard to realize when malware is at work.
“There’s a… lack of awareness of some of the challenges that our soldiers are going to face in the future in terms of jamming [and] cyber,” Lt. Gen. Mann told reporters at AUSA. Hostile action might be obvious if everything went down at once, but that’s unlikely to happen, Mann argued. Our enemies are competent but not omnipotent, so they’re unlikely to shut us down completely. If they did do so, they might end up jamming frequencies their own radios use or collapsing Internet infrastructure they rely on. So a more realistic scenario involves partial disruption, with considerable ambiguity about what’s enemy action and what’s ordinary glitches.
That said, the Army is greatly increasing the severity of jamming in training exercises. On December 8th, the new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, personally told the commanders of the Army’s famously tough Combat Training Centers (CTCs) that troops must train in “a contested electromagnetic spectrum” that represents the cutting-edge threat.
“We’re talking about doing this either this year or next” at the National Training Center, the largest of the CTCs, said Col. Jeffrey Church, the head of electronic warfare on the Army’s headquarters staff (section G-3/5/7).
“That is a big area of improvement,” Church told me in a Pentagon interview before the AUSA conference. In the past, “we’ve done some training exercises where there’s been GPS jamming; we’ve done exercises where there’s radio-frequency jamming… but it’s very narrow, very limited.” By contrast, he said, under Gen. Milley’s direction, the Army will “bring the full [EW] package to the National Training Center.”Training Technology
Training to deal with jamming requires having jammers to train with. That’s tricky for the Army, which got rid of its electronic warfare units as part of the “peace dividend” in the 1990s. The service has short-range defensive jammers that prevent certain types of roadside bombs from detonating, but for offensive jamming it relies entirely on Air Force EC-130H Compass Call and Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft. The Army won’t have its own offensive jammer again until 2023.
One training tool already in wide use is “space kits,” developed by Lt. Gen. Mann’s command. Varying in size and power, the kits jam the signals to and from satellites. (In cases where real jamming would cause trouble with the FCC, a technique called “direct injection jamming” can simulate it with benign signals). That forces soldiers to deal with losing GPS, satellite communications, or satellite imagery.
“Turn the jammer on and you watch them all go, ‘Okay, I don’t know where I am,'” said SDMC senior trainer Joan Rousseau, “which is kind of a sad thing because they’re not training necessarily with their maps and compasses.”
Space & Missile Defense Command training teams are on the road “non-stop,” Rousseau said, taking the space kits out to units around the Army to prepare them for Combat Training Center exercises. SMDC also has liaisons at the CTCs to make sure the training is realistic and demanding.
But this training effort is new and relatively small. The pre-exercise prep course is at most four days: a day to train the rank and file to deal with jamming, a day to train the staff in how to plan for such interference, and then a day or two of field exercises. The training has reached about 2,000 soldiers from roughly 25 brigade combat teams and many other units — but that’s still barely a down payment on a 490,000-soldier, 32-brigade active-duty army.
To step up electronic warfare training, the Army is now looking at repurposing an array of equipment currently used in testing. The Threat Management Security Office (TMSO) has a small inventory of EW sensors — to detect transmissions — and jammers — to disrupt them — which it uses to test how vulnerable current or proposed equipment is to electronic warfare. TSMO currently uses these at testing events like the Army’s Network Integration Evaluations (NIE). Church’s objective is for “the US Army to take the tiny little contract that TSMO has now and ramp that thing up so [EW training systems] become available to all units.”
Jamming is a highly technical problem, but not all solutions are technological. In many ways, the Army is getting back to basics — or at least back to the 1980s, the last time we faced a severe Russian EW threat. That means paper maps and compasses as a backup to GPS. It means using pushpins on paper maps or markers on acetate overlays as backups for “Blue Force Tracker” displays of where your troops are. But it also means carefully locating and relocating transmitters so they’re harder for the enemy to find. It means relearning radio discipline so troops don’t send long transmissions that the enemy can easily home in on.
In the Cold War, troops were trained to use “burst transmissions”: hit the “talk” button, say something swiftly — using codewords and abbreviations where possible — and then stop transmitting. Nowadays, though, troops tend to use radios like cellphones. They don’t stop transmitting when they stop talking, which means that (1) the person on the other end can hear them breathing into the microphone and (2) the enemy has a longer transmission to detect. Retraining such radio discipline would cost the Army much less than buying more secure radios, let alone than replacing dead troops.
Another old-school technique is “terrain masking” — a fancy way of saying “hiding behind stuff.” Radio waves don’t go through rock or heavily built structures very well. So instead of setting up your command post on top of the hill, for example, set it up behind the hill, where your radios have a clear line of site to other friendly units but are hidden from enemy sensors. Better yet, set up your radio transmitters well away from the actual command post (“displaced”), connected by a landline, so if the bad guys do detect your transmissions and strike the antennas, your HQ staff are still alive. Best of all, pack up your whole command post and move it somewhere else a couple of times a day, so the bombardment falls on where you just were instead of where you are.