Brown: USAF Has Been ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ Too Long When It Comes to EMS

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is pushing the Air Staff to publish an electromagnetic spectrum warfare strategy in the spring, saying USAF has been “asleep at the wheel” for nearly three decades.

The strategy will lay out “where we’re headed and where we’re taking the Air Force” in EMS warfare, Brown said in a virtual event sponsored by the Association of Old Crows. It will include “the operations we need to do in that area, and how we fund it; that is all part of the conversation.”

The strategy will interlock with a defense-wide EMS strategy promised in the same forum by Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John E. Hyten in early January, and also due out in the spring. At the time, Hyten said the Joint Requirements Oversight Council will, for the first time, give each service tasks to perform in EMS warfare.

The new Air Force strategy will break with decades of “neglect” in the elecromagnetic spectrum, as the Air Force faced no peer competition in its Afghanistan and Iraq operations, Brown said. The service will shift from being entirely defensive in EMS operations to offensive as well, and plans to make major shifts instead of small improvements.

“Bottom line, we are not deterring our adversaries like we need to,” Brown asserted. Chinese and Russian cyber forces “have invaded the U.S. without a declaration of war,” he added, and the U.S. posture “hasn’t deterred them from using influence operations and misinformation to change the narrative.”

“We cannot continue to let this happen. We must make significant changes,” he said. If the Air Force continues “to do things as we have, changing incrementally, it will not be ‘accelerate change or lose,’ it will simply be, ‘lose.’”

The threat is far more “dynamic” and rapidly evolving, and the Air Force has not kept up, Brown said. The service has been “asleep at the wheel” practically since Operation Desert Storm, which took place 30 years ago.

Providing EMS capabilities to the joint force is an “absolute prerequisite” for any deterrence or combat victory, Brown said. If the Air Force fails to do so, “it will be on me,” for not having provided the equipment and training necessary, he added.

The fight is a never-ending one, Brown said, noting that EMS superiority isn’t really possible anymore. He compared it to air superiority in the Pacific theater—Brown previously commanded Pacific Air Forces—which can only be achieved in a “localized” fashion given the size of the theater.

“We must provide EMS capabilities at the right time, and the right place,” he said. “There is no end state. It is an endless game” with “many waypoints,” but “no finish line.” Rather, the goal will be to maintain “our advantage” and not seek vainly for EMS superiority. 

“We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” like stealth and jamming, merely to ensure that forces get home, “and expect to be successful,” Brown asserted. “We’re using the same systems that … we’ve been using over the course of the past 25 years.” That’s “not going to work in the future,” he said.

The Air Force will begin to take an “offensive” posture “to maneuver and fire in the EMS.”

Brown said he’s “not a real believer” in the mantra of connecting every sensor with every shooter. “I think you have to connect the right sensor to the right shooter to the right decision-maker to be able to execute.”

The biggest investment shift will be away from hardware and platforms to software, Brown said, acknowledging that software and things like “open mission systems” architecture are hard sells with Congress because there’s no physical thing to look at, and no perceived effect “until it impacts you.”

But “an electron is much cheaper than a very expensive missile,” and USAF will exploit the EMS to achieve non-kinetic effects as one way to reduce “the cost of destruction.”

Software will be the denominator of success, Brown said, asserting that “whoever can write code fastest is going to win.” He added that, “We are outnumbered, particularly looking at the Chinese,” who have so many people and efforts to attack the EMS on so many fronts. He’s looking for EMS capabilities that are “platform agnostic.”

The Air Force will also include allies and partners in its EMS strategies because it will be necessary to have them involved from the beginning, to avoid creating incompatible systems. Allies are “what we have that [adversaries] don’t, … that’s why we have to work together,” Brown said.

“We’re looking at future force designs [that will] integrate all these capabilities.” He also said he expects that Air Force and Joint Force Air Component Commanders will have the duty to “be the integrator for all the kinetic and non-kinetic” approaches to EMS operations.

The Air Force will be embarking on a series of experimental wargames and prototyping to flesh out its EMS concepts and how they will integrate with kinetic forces, Brown said.

Congress included language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to make EMS warfare a priority, Brown said.

“We’re not where we need to be. Every so often Congress needs to light a fire under us to get us to move a little bit faster,” he acknowledged. This was one of the reasons he’s pursuing “accelerated change across the Air Force.” The service should “be embarrassed sometimes that Congress has to tell us to do some of these things and move faster,” but the NDAA is a good “forcing function” to achieve that.  

He’s asked the Air Staff to provide hypothetical situations to help inform the strategy, saying, “Tell me what are we going to do … because we have to get to 2030 sooner than later. I’d like to get there much faster than 2030.”

In this pitched battle with China, he said, “Someone’s got to go first. It can either be us, or it can be the Chinese, our choice. I’d rather it be us first.”