“Asleep at the wheel.” That’s how Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. described the Air Force’s lackluster approach to advancing the art of warfare in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) over the past 30 years.
For most of that time, America was focused on counterinsurgencies in the Middle East, not peer warfare, where mastery of the spectrum can spell the difference between victory and defeat. But with Russia and China having advanced the state of the art, the United States is now fighting to catch up. It’s compelled to consider alternative strategies to dominating in EMS warfare while developing new weapons and systems to counter the advances of peer adversaries.
Generally, we’re going to have to be able to fight in a fractured way.Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, USAF deputy chief of staff
The Air Force approved a new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy last April, and Air Combat Command stood up the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing last summer. In the fall, the service reorganized EMS under the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects directorate. And this spring, the Air Force and Navy will send Congress a joint report on efforts to accelerate research and deployment of “cognitive” electronic warfare, which leverages machine learning.
Yet as the Air Force strives to put all these changes into effect, China and Russia continue to invest in and enhance their capabilities. Brewing conflicts in Ukraine, Taiwan or elsewhere may not allow the U.S. time to catch up, U.S. forces may have to settle for something far short of spectrum domination: mutual denial. While U.S. skills in EMS atrophied during its long counterinsurgency fights in Southwest Asia, China matched and surpassed them. So said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements—USAF’s “futurist”—in a December speech to the Association of Old Crows.
The Air Force’s EW Quarterbacks
To implement an EMS strategy, the Air Force needs hardware. It gave up its dedicated electronic warfare aircraft, the EF-111 Raven and F-4G, in the late 1990s. Their functions have since been taken over by the F-16 Block 50 Wild Weasel, the EC-130 Compass Call, and a number of other tactical platforms, pods, and systems integrated with aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35.For the latter half of the 2020s, the Air Force’s tactical EW game will largely be handled by the F-35 Block 4, with its AN/ASQ-239 EW system, and the F-15, fitted with the AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS). The EPAWSS is actually based on the F-35’s suite, and BAE Systems, which makes both, expects that it will be able to produce modules common to both systems by mid-decade, sharply reducing sustainment costs while maximizing the efforts of software. The Air Force and Boeing are deciding whether to pursue that approach. Neither the Air Force nor BAE Systems can talk much about how, specifically, the EPAWSS works. Traditionally, such systems have either jammed enemy radars with so much energy that they can’t see targets in the cloud of electrons; or they send an inverse wave to fool the enemy radar that it isn’t there; or it manipulates the return signal to fool the enemy radar into thinking the jet is somewhere else.
Broadly, it’s an internal system—not a pod—that rapidly senses and collects “hits” of electromagnetic energy, even from low probability of intercept radars, creating a wraparound view of threats for the pilot. EPAWSS is integrated with the F-15’s chaff and flare dispensers, and is “interoperable” with the F-15’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, BAE said, meaning it can jam enemy radar without interfering with the jet’s own radar or radar warning receivers.
The EPAWSS has a modular, open-system architecture so that even small businesses with “neat tricks” will be able to get onto the platform, said Jerry Wohletz, BAE Systems vice president and general manager for electronic warfare. And while he couldn’t say how fast the EPAWSS can detect a threat and respond, it’s “the fastest system that has ever been deployed.”
“We’re using fundamental math and physics,” Wohletz said. “We’re not going after artificial intelligence or machine learning,” but “raw, brute force overmatch against what the adversaries can field in speed.” He said that provides an advantage in decision-making: “if you’re faster than your adversary, you own your adversary.”
The system will provide “freedom of maneuver” for the non-stealthy, 1970s-vintage F-15 near highly contested airspace, Wohletz said. The F-15 will be able to get “within meaningful ranges” of enemy air defenses with a large load of weaponry, “so they can use all of that armament … at a very extended combat range.” Without EPAWSS, the Air Force has said the F-15 would be unusable near contested airspace after about 2025.
Rather than rely on a library of set piece responses, the EPAWSS can deliver a “cocktail of approaches” that will challenge an adversary’s ability to process the data on a useful timeline.
By building on the F-35’s system, the EPAWSS and F-35 will both be able to take advantage of software and update investments, Wohletz said.
“Now EPAWSS is feeding back into [F-35] Block 4 upgrades,” he said, “and we’re going to take that to the next level, and drive more commonality into the system, toward the ideal situation of some day, getting to … where the modules start to be interchangeable between aircraft.” That’s key, because “you hear from DOD leaders, ‘sustainment is killing us,’” he said. Common modules would ease maintenance by making more line replaceable units available and reduce cost by producing them in greater quantities.
Major software updates will likely be made in six-to-12 month intervals, Wohletz said, but in development, there have been as many as five a year, indicating that faster updates are possible if necessary.
EPAWSS suffered from serious setback early in development, but BAE Systems put “a lot of skin in the game,” and those issues are largely resolved, Wohletz said. The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in its 2022 annual report, said the Air Force is testing EPAWSS now and will start fielding it operationally on F-15Es in fiscal 2023, and on the new F-15EX in fiscal 2024.
“That was a time of de-emphasis of electronic warfare, electronic attack, electronic defense, maneuvering in the electromagnetic spectrum,” Hinote said. “They studied us. … They studied many of you and your work, and they did their best to come up with ways of countering what you were doing in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Today, as a result, China can send pulses from their radars “that are different every time,” Hinote said. “Yes—that’s happening right now.”
The Chinese became so good at electromagnetic spectrum warfare in the interim that today “they absolutely believe that [EMS] superiority is a prerequisite for victory,” Hinote said, suggesting that denying China use of the spectrum could be enough to deter it from fighting. “Maybe it’s enough that we deny the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to China,” he said, by filling “the airwaves with electromagnetic energy to the point where you could walk on it. … To make it so difficult to operate in the electromagnetic spectrum that it’s mutually denied space.”
Like the “no man’s land” between the opposing trenches in World War I, the spectrum would be a region where neither side has superiority or advantage. “Gum it up so much that China is fearful of their ability to operate in that area,” Hinote said.
The Air Force is “pretty good” at operating with communication severed, sensors jammed, and space connectivity denied, Hinote said. It’s practiced the concept for years in “A Day Without Space” exercises. “Generally, we’re going to have to be able to fight in a fractured way,” he said. A “fractured versus fractured force fight is a very interesting one to us.”
Hinote urged listeners to be “open” to and accept as fact that wholesale superiority may no longer be possible. He urged listeners to be open to the idea of mutually denied EMS and accept that wholesale superiority may no longer be possible.
Critics warn that there are drawbacks to a scorched-sky, no-man’s-land approach to EMS. Ret. Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Israel, in a January paper for AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, wrote that “slugging it out electronically with our adversaries obviates all the advantages of such innovative operational concepts such as mosaic warfare.”
U.S. strategy, he argues, should be using all its technological capabilities to gain decision advantage over adversaries.
Hinote, however, counters that the answer is not so much abandoning dominance as narrowing the focus of where and when it’s needed.
“There’s no one out there … who seriously believes we can project air superiority in all places, at all times, and at all altitudes,” Hinote said. Rather, America must focus on ensuring the ability to dominate airspace at the place and time of its choosing. The same approach could be applied to EMS warfare.
In a densely jammed battlespace, confusion can offer opportunities, Hinote suggested. Given that the battlespace will be filled with platforms that all have “apertures” and “energy producers,” the U.S. could “use software to be able to generate certain kinds of directed energy,” and could inject cyber weapons into the mix. He declined to elaborate because details are classified, but added: “I’m really excited about this.”
Brig. Gen. Tad D. Clark, USAF’s director of the electromagnetic spectrum superiority directorate, told the Old Crows that it will be important to inject “that doubt, that hesitation” into an adversary’s decision-making. “That confusion is winning for us.” If adversaries can be forced to pause and reconsider whether “the odds are in their favor … we’re slowing their decision matrix down.”
Investing in new EMS capabilities will pay off, Clark said, because achieving cyber effects or spectrum denial “gets us to the desired effects—nonkinetic effects—for pennies on the dollar” compared to kinetic weapons.
Col. William E. Young, commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, said his job is to take all the sensors, jammers, directed-energy weapons and other tools and generate myriad unpredictable combinations. Like Lego bricks, they can be mixed and matched “into on-demand, ad hoc kill webs.” This imposes complexity on adversaries by creating a nearly impossible task: anticipating all the different combinations they could face.
This “Lego” approach signals another change, from packaging such systems “at the platform level” to instead doing so “at the subsystem level,” he said.
According to Hinote the U.S. remains the leader in “signature management stealth” in both long- and shortwave frequencies, as well as in other EMS efforts. Stealth “was revolutionary and it still is,” he said. “The idea that from very low frequencies to high frequencies, you can manage signature, and you can do it in all aspects, and you have the ability, in the same platform, to reduce infrared emissions—those are incredible advances.” U.S. platforms can now claim “very, very low signature” in radio frequencies and infrared.
The Pentagon is also rapidly building its partnership with the commercial sector, where competition is fierce in developing autonomous systems and leveraging machine learning for all manner of applications. Such automation also has huge implications for next-generation electronic warfare.
Commercial innovation may drive these advances more than defense requirements, making the Pentagon more of an adopter than a developer. By contrast, China requires close cooperation between commercial developers and military customers.
Because there is little commercial value to “catch a pulse,” manipulate it, and retransmit it all at very high speed, the military will always need focused programs in EMSO [EMS operations], Hinote said. “We have to bring together the military side and the commercially driven side,” he said. “We have to be ambidextrous.”
In his paper, Israel said the Air Force has been good at setting EMSO goals, but isn’t swiftly reaching them.
“We do not need an aspirational document, but an actionable document that lays out what we need to do and by when, to achieve spectrum superiority,” he said. “We do not have the luxury of time or promised future resources to fix our [electronic warfare and] EMSO gaps.”
Israel said the Air Force has too few EMS warfare specialists and insufficient incentives to retain the expertise it has, let alone to draw new people into the field.
“We must rebuild and expand our EMSO expertise fast,” he said. USAF graduates just 80 electronic warfare officers a year from the Navy’s Joint Combat Systems Officers school—too few to meet demand. Talent is needed with “a broad array [of] interrelated, spectrum-dominated technologies, to include artificial intelligence, networks, 5G, complex waveforms, interferometry, antenna designs, microelectronics, phase-reversing phenomena, digital processing, cloud topologies, metadata analytics, encryption, directed energy, and other forms and modes of electronic warfare.”
It is unreasonable to expect “a social studies or music major will understand and transition easily into mastering the essentials of cognitive and complex signals,” Israel said.
Rather than seek to grow these experts organically, Israel said the Air Force should hire trained industry experts directly and insert them at the appropriate levels of command.
“If we can bring on doctors with special skills into the DOD workforce, we should be able to bring on highly qualified, commercially trained EMSO experts and give them an appropriate … rating commensurate with their expertise and training,” he wrote.
Without spectrum superiority, it won’t be possible to achieve the dominance promised by joint all-domain command and control, Israel said.
Hinote agreed. In his remarks to the Old Crows, Hinote said that without a fully integrated force, with all domains connected and working together, wargames show clearly that “it’s not pretty. …We lose.” With the passage of time, “we see an increasing trend where we don’t accomplish the objectives. And in fact, we lose faster,” without joint all-domain command and control. “That’s not a place any of us want to be.”
A simple way to look at it is that “if you have vulnerability in one domain, you can use strength in another” to compensate, he said. When broad networking is added to wargames, “then we actually did pretty well against the most advanced threats out there.” But there’s a “lot of work to do” to bring the domains together and eliminate stovepipe thinking and action. The longer the U.S. waits to truly implement it, the more adversaries will exploit “the investments they have made in tearing apart and fracturing the United States military command and control.”
Hinote also said a sea change is underway in how to conduct electronic warfare. The old method where there were “libraries” of threats and how best to respond to each of them “may not help us in the way they helped us in the past.” It will take AI and machine learning to rapidly assess and respond to threats.
“You’re going to see your worthy rival … change their force presentation in the electromagnetic spectrum pretty quickly. And that’s going to require us to be agile.”
Hinote’s upbeat about the future of EMSO, saying, “I actually think we compete pretty well. … And we certainly do not want a fight. We want to deter and protect our interests and those of our partners and allies.”
In a shooting war with China, “nobody wins,” Hinote admonished. So, “it’s important that we do things that help us accomplish our strategy on the strategic defense” and recognize that using the EMS “to support defense in all domains is really, really critical, and good for deterrence.”
It’s an arena where “there’s been … erosion over time and we need to build back, over time, but we need to build immediate capabilities today,” he stated.