In the future, many of the most effective weapons used against the U.S. military are likely to be unseen: electromagnetic waves that disrupt radios or jam global positioning systems, paralyzing units.
This realm of fighting is called electronic warfare, and since the 9/11 attacks it’s been relegated to a lower priority than fighting insurgent groups with precision guided munitions and drones. Now, defense officials say they’re worried that the U.S. military’s ability to counter and wage electronic warfare has atrophied and is lagging behind countries such as Russia and China.
“We don’t have the gear,” Col. Jeffrey Church, the head of the Army’s electronic warfare division, said in a recent interview. “We’re working on getting it, [but] we’re talking years down the road, when our adversaries are doing this right now.”
One place where the United States’ adversaries have displayed their proficiency in electronic warfare is in eastern Ukraine, where the Pentagon has watched Russian forces with a wary eye, gleaning what they can from the country’s reinvigorated military.
“The Russians have worked hard in recent years” in electronic warfare, Gen. Ben Hodges, the commanding general for the Army’s forces in Europe, said during a recent interview. “What they’ve done in east Ukraine and in Crimea has allowed us to study the challenge.”
One Ukrainian special-forces colonel fighting outside of the war-torn city of Donetsk said his men were targeted by an artillery strike after Russian-backed forces located his troops solely by his radio transmissions. The colonel, who for security reasons would identify himself only by his first name, Andrei, said in a recent interview that the radio they had was an American-brand Harris radio. The radio was capable of encrypted communication, but since its output was so much more powerful than the smaller handheld radios the regular Ukrainian troops often carry, the Russian-backed separatists were able to locate the American radio and attack its broadcast site with artillery.
The U.S. Army has a potential tool that would counter the Russians’ techniques, according to Church. Called the Integrated Electronic Warfare system, the three-piece program is meant to be a sort of one-stop shop for the Army’s electronic warfare division. The system is essentially a collection of software, sensors and devices that can be mounted to ground vehicles and drones and carried in troops’ rucksacks and will be able to jam, detect and identify enemy interference. The catch? It isn’t completely funded and has no set year when it will be ready, though one component of the system is slotted to be fielded by the end of 2016, with another due in 2023.
“We’ve been talking about this since 2005,” Church said, referring to one component of the Integrated Electronic Warfare system that was supposed to be ready in 2009 but won’t be in the field until later this year. “There’s these guys that have been looking at really neat pictures of really neat capabilities for years and we still don’t have it.”
During the Cold War, with the Soviet Union as the United States’ biggest threat, Army units trained knowing that their enemy would attack them with some element of electronic warfare. But once the Cold War ended, the Army shuttered its units that focused solely on electronic combat.
The Army and Marine Corps renewed their interest in the area around 2005, when they needed something to combat remote-controlled roadside bombs, which were killing and wounding troops by the dozens. Even then, however, U.S. forces had almost no concern about adversaries jamming their navigation equipment or radios and focused solely on countering the threat at hand.
Now, Church is fighting for funding and the prioritization of the Army’s electronic warfare in the Pentagon’s upcoming budget. To do this, he has to lobby the Pentagon’s new electronic warfare committee.
“What I haven’t been able to just drive home is something I can’t demonstrate,” Church said. “We can see an artillery round explode. . . . We can see the effect that those combat arms guys have. . . . I can’t see any of that in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
“It’s hard to prove this stuff works,” he added.
Church says the Pentagon brass has acknowledged to him that ideally there would be 3,200 electronic-warfare soldiers spread throughout the Army. Instead, he has 800.
“The joke in the field is that EW [electronic warfare] stands for extra workers,” Church said. “Because they have no gear, we have hardly any equipment to do our job.”
In the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, conventional electronic warfare has been mostly relegated to certain aircraft with the purpose of jamming and defeating enemy air defenses and radar along with gathering signals intelligence. The Navy has the EA-18G Growler, while the Marines last year retired their aging EA-6B Prowler, a jet specifically designed for electronic warfare. With the Prowler gone, the Marines, in the past two years, have been using a system of pods that can be mounted to various aircraft and will soon be able to be attached to ground vehicles and carried by individual Marines — the same capability the Army is seeking.
“This is significant for the Marine Corps, and we’ve moved out in front of everyone else,” said Col. Gregory Breazile, director of the Marines’ Cyber and Electronic Warfare Integration Division.
Yet, despite various advancements by certain branches, the U.S. military is at a critical point in determining which priorities to fund and how it will wage its future wars.
“The battle of the electromagnetic spectrum could very well determine a win or loss in a future war,” said Peter Singer, a Senior Fellow and Strategist at New America who focuses on future conflicts. “The worry for the United States in electronic warfare is that we’re seeing nations like Russia and China invest deeply in the hope that it will nullify our advantages in other realms.”
With the rollout of the 2017 defense budget Tuesday, it is unclear how many resources will be devoted to electronic warfare, though Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter stressed its importance in an address to the Economic Club in Washington during an early preview of the upcoming request last week.
Two days later, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced a bill that would allow the Pentagon to fund electronic warfare programs more quickly, in hopes of keeping pace with advancing technology and the United States’ adversaries.
“It is critical our military dominate the offensive and defensive ends of electronic warfare,” Kirk, a former naval intelligence officer, said in a statement. “The need for enhanced electronic capabilities is even more pronounced on today’s battlefield.”