A shortage of personnel and facilities, as well as a loss of talent as the Air Force divests some of its electronic warfare capabilities, are all challenging the service’s lone spectrum warfare wing’s buildup to full capability, its commander said April 18
Col. Joshua Koslov, commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., said during an AFA Warfighters in Action event he faces a disconnect between requirements and resources.
“Managing that risk is where I spend most of my time,” Koslov noted. “I don’t have enough people, I don’t have the right facilities,” but “we’re working with the Air Force and [Air Combat Command] to get there.”
The 350th stood up in June 2021, but nearly two years later, Koslov said he has over more than 200 military and civilian vacancies each—“and we’re going to continue to grow.”
Perhaps it’s just as well those vacancies exist, however, because “I only have 50 more seats to give in the facilities that I have today,” Koslov added.
The 350th, in addition to prosecuting electronic attack and electronic warfare, is responsible for programming the threat catalogs for all F-35s worldwide and providing operational capabilities and advice to theater commanders and the Air Force leadership, among many other responsibilities. While it does not “buy widgets,” Koslov said, it sets requirements and standards by which new hardware has to fit in with the EW enterprise.
The people and facilities shortages are just part of the growing pains of developing a new organization, Koslov said, “but we have a team that’s really positive about the effort.”
A major milestone in that effort, the declaration of full operational capability (FOC), is still a little ways off, as Koslov indicated he will wait until the wing stands up a new 950th Spectrum Warfare Group, giving him more ability to deploy units.
In the meantime, one of his main worries is that “sustaining the wing is going to become hard from a personnel perspective … as we divest platforms.”
“We build electronic warfare officers based on platforms, and that’s not the best way to do that,” Koslov said. “As we divest platforms or divest crew members off of platforms, your pool of electronic warfare officers gets a lot smaller.”
The wing is looking to keep people in the field with meaningful work and assignments, but it’s early in that process, he said.
That challenge is compounded by the fact that electronic warfare officers tend to “stay in [their] tribe for a long time,” focusing exclusively on their particular platform. Building crews “that can transcend the Air Force and think Air Force-wide and then Joint Force-wide is a challenge for us,” Koslov said.
Likewise, engineers that work with or for the 350th tend to come in for a specific hardware or software project before moving on. Koslov said he would like to “retain that talent,” once they’re versed in the spectrum warfare trade.
“I think about that a lot,” he added. “It’s worrisome to me” that expertise is being institutionally lost.
The Spectrum Warfare Wing came into being after the Air Force realized that 20 years of focusing on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, with no peer competitor in the field, had caused the Air Force’s electronic warfare skills to “atrophy,” in the words of Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown.
While he couldn’t get into details, Koslov said the wing is trying to take a more holistic approach to the EW fight, transitioning away from typically kinetic responses to more subtle ones that save on munitions and extract more information.
Traditionally, USAF has “rolled back” an integrated air defense system by striking at emitters, receivers and shooters; the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission, he explained.
“It’s still what we’re trying to do,” Koslov said. “It’s just more modern. The enemy’s going to be more agile, they’re going to move faster, and so we need the systems and the communications capability and the air managers and joint warfighters who can understand what the [Coalition Forces Air Commander’s] objectives are that day and make decisions in order to support … those objectives.”
As an example, Koslov pointed to a Chinese Surface Action Group (SAG).
In that SAG, “there’s probably five to seven boats, but there’s probably 45 EW targets that we need to cover,” and “either exploit, take away, deceive, defeat, in a time and place of our choosing, based on what the mission commander is asking us to do.”
The Air Force has “allowed ourselves to be focused solely on the kinetic aspect of killing targets, but there are a lot of ways to neutralize a target, and the spectrum provides” ways to do that.
Given tight budgets, using fewer weapons or assets to eliminate threats through electronic attack or electronic warfare could be especially important.
Elsewhere, the wing is also heavily involved in exercises and will participate in the upcoming Northern Edge wargame, Koslov said.
However, despite habitual operator demands for more realistic live-fly threats on USAF’s wargame ranges, an increasing number of spectrum warfare wargame elements will take place in the live, virtual, and constructive world. That is due in part to the difficulty in obtaining threat equipment, Koslov said, but also because realistic electronic warfare conducted in the open can be observed by adversaries, and USAF would rather keep its tricks hidden.
Participating in wargames also helps heighten awareness of EW at the Air Warfare Center and 57th Wing, Koslov said, and ensures it is included in “China-based” campaign plans.
Koslov also outlined five things he needs to realize USAF’s Spectrum Warfare vision:
- Crowd-sourced flight data, where spectrum activities are fed into a single database that can be shared across multiple platforms.
- Electronic Battle Management, a component of the Air Force’s broader Advanced Battle Management System. “It’s the way we move EW data across platforms in the fight,” Koslov said, to meet the air commanders’ objectives.
- Cognitive EW, or the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze and respond to EW threats.
- Accessible data to ensure the service can work with industry to develop new jamming and response capabilities in a more timely fashion.
- “Being able to assess all that”—to determine readiness “you have to be able to assess something,” and “this is a big, long readiness discussion with a partnership piece in the middle of it,” Koslov said.