USAF Refocusing on Electronic Warfare After Years of Counterinsurgency Operations

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes delivers a keynote speech during AFA's 2018 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Air Force photo by SSgt. Rusty Frank.

There will be a new electronic warfare czar on the Air Staff, following the Air Force’s yearlong review of its EW enterprise.

The study, which has yet to be released, also recommended grouping its disparate EW efforts together, and working to “reinvigorate” its cadre of EW professionals, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes said Thursday. He also said the new combined numbered Air Force that will merge USAF’s cyber and ISR functions will be up and running this summer, although major changes in what its elements do are probably a few years off.

“We’re going to combine and consolidate things that we’re doing out and around the Air Force, and reinvigorate that warrior ethos that goes with having a force” that is expert “on planning and using it,” Holmes said in an interview with Air Force Magazine at an AFA cyber conference at JB Langley-Eustis, Va.

However, Holmes declined to elaborate, acknowledging he was “being vague on purpose.” He said he needed to leave further comment to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the service, but he also didn’t want to “broadcast to our adversaries exactly what we’re doing.” A major media rollout as the service did with its Air Dominance Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team report and the one on multi-domain operations is not likely in the cards because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“What we found is that we have a lot of capability in the Air Force, in individual platforms, and what we haven’t done as much of is pull those together in a coordinated and combined way, and so we’ll focus on what are new ideas, and new concepts, and new ways that we can pull those together,” Holmes said of the EW study.

Asked if the study suggests a need to replace a capability like the EF-111 Raven, an electronic escort jammer retired circa 1999, Holmes responded, “I’ll just say … we are pursuing a distributed electronic warfare strategy.”

There is an Office of the Secretary of Defense executive committee for electronic warfare, which was started by former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work in 2016, but Holmes declined to offer insights as to how the Air Force will coordinate with the services on EW.

“That excom is still there, they have funded some studies to look at what the joint approach should be, they’ve done some outbrief on those studies, and I don’t think they’ve made any commitment on which way they’re going to go,” Holmes summarized.

In a speech to the AFA industry audience, Holmes said the ECCT helped USAF realize “that [in] 15 years squared off against violent extremists, we had a loss of focus on coordinating our electronic combat tools. I think you’ll see us with a renewed focus on dominating that electronic spectrum.” In the intervening period, “we have gained some … new capabilities … AESA radars are powerful electronic warfare tools; distributed jammers that are being fielded on our platforms are powerful EW tools. The modification and the transition of jamming packages from the EC-130 to the EC-37 is going to give us some powerful tools.”

But what the service has “lost a little bit is the focus on being able to pull that together.” Going forward, the focus will be on EW planning, “how to integrate it against a peer adversary, and you’ll see us refocus on that … to combine and consolidate our efforts, to rebuild that electromagnetic spectrum warfare warrior ethos, and the EWOs that have the experience to do that, and come up with new concepts and new presentations.”

When 24th Air Force—USAF’s Cyber Command—and 25th Air Force, its ISR command, merge this summer, the new entity will have a new number “so that nobody’s getting swallowed by the others,” Holmes told the symposium. Heraldry and history experts are choosing the new number to reflect a new combined mission, he said. The commander of the new combined NAF has been selected, and Holmes said that person will be announced soon.

Besides making both operations more efficient, the goal of the merger is to “see what the marriage of those two capabilities will do to the information warfare options that we can offer to our national decision makers, and the electronic warfare options we can present” to the combatant commanders.

With initial operational capability looming, “That means we’ve got to think through all the things that new numbered air force will do,” Holmes said. “They will be Joint Force Headquarters Cyber and Air Forces Cyber. They will operate Air Force’s networks … They’ll defend those networks around the world. They’ll have our service cryptological component, … and continue to provide the global ISR network we provide to COCOMS all the time. So it’s big job.”

Holmes said he expects that “as we pull those two staffs together … we’ll have a little turmoil, so in the short term I don’t think we’ll make a lot of changes at the wing level. We’ll let those wing commanders continue to make the trains run on time, make sure we do no harm to the capabilities we present, but in the coming years, I think you’ll also see us look at the wings that are presented through those NAFs, look at new ways to put them together, and think about how we can provide new options as we do that.”

See also: “EW Study Yields More Questions” from the April 2019 issue of Air Force Magazine.