EMS Wing Will Exploit New Architecture, But Don’t Expect a Silver Bullet

The Air Force’s new electromagnetic spectrum warfare wing will exploit new software-based communications and sensor grids to quickly and more broadly answer electronic warfare challenges, but operators should not expect that a single-point approach to EMS warfare is coming, the unit’s incoming commander said Dec. 9.

“We have to distance ourselves from the notion of a single wonder widget—think stealth, atomic bomb—that’s going to offer us a long-term competitive advantage” in EMS, said Col. William Young, incoming commander of USAF’s new 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies streaming panel discussion. It’s not coming, he added.

The good news, though, is that the move toward software-reconfigurable radios and sensors, paired with a defense-wide EMS architecture—which hasn’t been built yet, and standards for which are still being discussed—will enable quicker and broader responses to electronic warfare challenges.

The creation of the EMS wing “lets us … begin to get after this software-defined capability. If you imagine a world where everything is either a software-defined radio, or a reprogrammable multifunction array, and then you build an organization that can compose what you’ve already got in new ways, but not messing with the underlying [operational flight programs] or the hardware [of an aircraft], now you get the opportunity to rapidly deliver new capability,” Young said. “And if the request for the capability is coming from warfighters at the edge, then now you’re taking advantage of the beauty of software … We can fix a problem that may not be enduring; we may have a different problem tomorrow, and that’s OK, because we have the organization and the people” who can develop swift responses “really well.”

The complexity of software is expanding exponentially, however, said Brig. Gen. David W. Abba, head of the F-35 integration office.

“On the F-15, we were talking a handful of people needed to do the electronic warfare reprogramming. [There was a] large leap to the F-22, with 25-30 people. With the F-35, because of the complexity of 150,000 data fields involved in a mission data file, [there are] about 150 people in the reprogramming lab” at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

As a result, USAF has to be able to write electronic and cyber warfare software that is applicable across a wide field of users and systems at once; doing it individually will impose a manpower demand that can’t be met.

To deal with this “exponential growth and increased reliance” on EW capabilities, it’s necessary to “standardize the reprogramming enterprise, so every time we got a new mode of a surface-to air missile, we weren’t rebuilding it 25 or 30 different times, but each weapon system could go in and extract” the software needed to modify their own systems.

The keys will be “standards, interoperability, and architecture,” said U.S. Strategic Command Deputy Director for Joint Electronic Spectrum Operations Brig. Gen. AnnMarie K. Anthony.

Asked about how the Air Force can exercise such that it doesn’t expose its EW playbook, Young said a balance will have to be struck between the benefits and liabilities of practice.

“We’re going to have to accept the fact we’re occasionally going to have to show our cards, but in doing that, [if] our gain is greater than what we lose, then that might be something we’re willing to risk,” he said. “… We might elect to show it, but even if we show [an adversary] our playbook, there’s not a damn thing [he] can do about it. That needs to be our mindset.”

Spectrum operations interoperability will also be foundational for joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), Young said.

“Imagine the potential of a common, integrated reprogramming platform that services not only the Air Force but the Navy and the Army … Imagine a common integrating reprogramming platform that allows us to share data and insights, the equivalent of apps, across all our teams, and allies, and coalition partners, … that’s the future.” Enemies will have to worry about “a composite system of platforms. Now they’ve got to worry about platforms under the sea, in space, on surface. That’s JADC2.”

It will also be necessary to think creatively about a problem and “not go through a long, drawn-out acquisition process,” but compose a solution “at the edge” of contact “and then go fight with it. And this afternoon, we’re going to bring something different.”

“That’s the utopia we want to get to: an ability to work across the various programs … to get them all consolidated,” said Dave Tremper, Pentagon director of electronic warfare. The Army is doing well with its EW programs because “they’re consolidated under a single PEO,” or program executive officer, Tremper added. That’s the right level to direct EMS standards and compliance, because “if you go too high” in the chain of command, “you don’t get that clarity.”