Spectrum superiority: Electronic warfare and future conflict
For thousands of years, military strategists have used a range of methods to secretly learn enemy plans, trick opponents into tactical errors, and disrupt enemy communications. Throughout the twentieth century, electronic warfare (EW) has increasingly taken central stage as an effective tool for achieving those objectives. Indeed, EW is now a pivotal, albeit invisible part of modern warfare.
Militaries use EW to control the electromagnetic spectrum (or simply, the “spectrum”, a range of frequencies for electromagnetic energy), protecting their own sensing and communications while denying access to the spectrum by enemy forces. Since the introduction of two-way radios, militaries have in some senses become dependent on the spectrum to operate. This reliance only grew decade after decade throughout the twentieth century.
It is fair to say that nearly every facet of modern combat has an electromagnetic dimension. Warfare today is permeated by technology such as sensors, networks, navigation aids, and smart bombs that depend on access to the electromagnetic spectrum in order to function. This reliance is a vulnerability; it is an attack vector. Thus, in modern warfare, electromagnetic spectrum superiority is a leading indicator and fundamental component of achieving dominance in the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains.
The ‘warfare’ part of EW relates to military activities that use electromagnetic energy to gain superiority in – or even control over, whenever possible – the spectrum and attack an enemy. EW is thus any military action that involves the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to intercept, analyze, and manipulate the enemy’s use of the spectrum while protecting one’s own effective use of the same spectrum. The objectives of EW are expansive and include determining the existence of the enemy’s electronic aids as part of war-fighting capability, degrading or destroying the effectiveness of the enemy’s electronic warfare capabilities, and denying the destruction of the effectiveness of friendly EW resources.
Despite its growing importance to military performance, EW is poorly understood outside of narrow technical circles. This research article in part aims to rectify this. What follows is a primer on the chief aspects of EW and its real-world impact in recent conflict, specifically the Russia-Ukraine War. The article then looks ahead to how EW might prospectively shape future wars and the international security environment more broadly.
As mentioned above, modern militaries rely on access to the spectrum, first but not least for communications equipment. Denial of the spectrum limits how militaries can talk, transmit data, provide navigation, and generally command and control their forces. Military establishments also rely on the spectrum to know where adversaries are and what they are doing, where friendly forces are, and what effects weapons achieve. As a result, control of the spectrum through EW is absolutely critical for armed forces today.
There is tremendous advantage afforded to the side that gains and maintains superiority in the spectrum – not just in war but across the competition continuum. The opposite is also, of course, true; it is a huge disadvantage to be weaker in the spectrum. “If we lose the war in the spectrum, we lose the war in the air and we lose it quickly,” Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command, said during keynote remarks at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference in September 2021.
There are three main elements to EW and to gaining superiority in the spectrum: electronic support (ES), electronic attack (EA), and electronic protection (EP). Electronic support intercepts, identifies, and locates signals emitted from either friendly or enemy forces to either protect one’s forces or develop a plan to deny an enemy’s access to the spectrum. Electronic attack directs energy toward threats to disrupt and neutralize their effects. Electronic protection protects people, facilities, and equipment from enemy or friendly disruption or electronic attack.
Disruptive capabilities impose cost and create chaos for adversaries, in ways they cannot predict, by denying or deceiving their electromagnetic capabilities at the time and place of the attacker’s choosing. Developing disruptive EW capabilities and attributes requires some of the most advanced technology a country can bring to bear. It stands to reason then that states with the greatest technological prowess are likely to dominate the spectrum today and tomorrow.
Until recently, EW was treated as an afterthought by many modern militaries after the Cold War. EP has risen again to be perhaps the most important aspect of EW, as Russia and China field increasingly sophisticated jammers and sensors. EP includes tactics and technologies to shield radio transmissions from being detected or jammed.
Terrestrial and airborne EW
EW capabilities have properties that are highly attractive to military planners. Because many EW capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions are naturally reduced. This in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable and repeatable options to put and keep an adversary on the back foot.
EW capabilities are traditionally categorized into two distinct categories: terrestrial and airborne. Each has its respective advantages and disadvantages, making it imperative for militaries to use both. Airborne EW is primarily employed to intercept, decrypt, and disrupt communications, radars, and other command and control (C2) systems over huge areas. However, these capabilities are limited by aircraft endurance. Modern-day military operations also rely on satellite-based EW capabilities, including for broad area surveillance and early-warning, communications, and C2.
Ground EW capabilities were traditionally used to intercept and to jam radios and artillery radars. More recent uses include jamming improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, ships’ countermeasure technologies use EW to protect vessels from anti-ship missile attacks. Terrestrial EW sensors and jammers – which can be located on land or on ships at sea – also have their limitations. Variance in the terrain in which they operate hinders their effects.
Cat-and-mouse in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has highlighted EW’s centrality across multiple domains. Russia’s conventional forces may have performed poorly and suffered heavy losses in the opening year of the conflict, but it still has some of the world’s most advanced electronic warfare systems. It has the invisible means to track an enemy and to intercept or block communications.
Along the roughly 1000 kilometers of the conflict’s main front line, Russia maintains major EW systems at a spacing of roughly every 10 kilometers. According to a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank focusing on defense matters, these EW systems are set back about 6 kilometers from the front and have recently been focused mainly on neutralizing drones. Russian EW has made a substantial contribution to Ukrainian drone losses, which have, according to some reports, been at the rate of 10,000 per month. While gunfire from the ground accounts for some losses, they have been going down in large numbers due to EW, which can scramble small drones’ GPS navigation systems or jam the radio-control links to their distant operators.
Moreover, Russia has fielded Zoopark radars that can locate the source of artillery fire, its Zhitel vehicles in Ukraine detect, track and block radio frequencies, while the Borisoglebsk-2 can disrupt satellite communications like GPS. Russian EW is apparently achieving real time interception of Ukrainian encrypted tactical communications systems. Some Ukrainian units have even reverted to using World War I wind up field telephones to communicate between positions as a consequence of Russia’s EW capabilities.
Moreover, Russia has been thwarting U.S.-made mobile rocket systems in Ukraine more frequently in recent months, using electronic jammers to throw off its GPS guided targeting system to cause rockets to miss their targets. GPS jamming can affect other so-called “smart” U.S. munitions like the precision-guided artillery shells fired from Howitzers and air-dropped bombs called JDAMs. The U.S. has also helped the Ukrainians locate the Russian jammers and destroy them – a “high priority” effort. It is little surprise then that in recent months, Ukrainian attacks on Russian forces have prioritized destroying electronic warfare systems. This is considered an important prelude to Ukraine launching its long-awaited counter-offensive.
Geopolitical competition and EW
The importance of EW to today’s international security environment extends well beyond the Ukrainian battlefield. The dynamics of great power competition demand increased appreciation and focus on access to the spectrum and how it will be contested inside and outside of outright war. As a general rule, the more advanced an adversary’s scientific and technological capabilities are, the greater role EW is likely to play in any prospective conflict.
America’s rivals are developing and fielding advanced technology that targets U.S. capabilities across the spectrum. The congressionally mandated U.S. National Defense Strategy Commission, which independently evaluated the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) strategy, stated that the United States is losing its advantages in EW, hindering the nation’s ability to conduct military operations against capable adversaries. The commission recommended increasing EW investments and developing new concepts to regain U.S. military advantage in this critical area. According to the U.S. DoD’s 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy, “to maintain warfighting superiority, DoD must look to revolutionary, leap-ahead technologies and capabilities to be able to compete against a range of adversaries across the competition continuum.”
Any prospective leader of EW will likely emphasize revolutionary, leap-ahead technologies and capabilities. Those reliant on evolutionary EW capabilities will encounter the risk of vulnerabilities due to the explosive pace of dual-use technology, especially in the computer and tele-communications sectors. The Critical Technology Tracker report of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has recently claimed that China is leading in high-impact research in areas related to electronic warfare. The People’s Liberation Army of China, for example, is considering a new form of EW that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze received radio waves and optimize jamming. Clearly, EW capabilities are increasingly going to become a key factor in the relative military balance between the major powers.
EW into the future
Electronic warfare systems are on the verge of rapid innovation towards new capabilities, longer ranges, and improved performance. Many underlying technologies, especially AI, are overcoming limitations in existing systems. But EW faces strong headwinds in the congested nature of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Military and civilian systems dependent on the electromagnetic spectrum are crowding the spectrum and increasing the amount of unintentional interference. The rapid rise of commercial mobile broadband technologies continues to transform national economies and connect people around the world. However, new commercial technologies have resulted in increased demand for bandwidth, competing with militaries for essential access to the spectrum.
As technology evolves, militaries and defense organizations will try and evolve their EW solutions to counteract and then surpass the capabilities of their adversaries by leapfrogging each other in an ongoing effort to maintain dominance. Recent developments in AI suggest that this emerging technology will have a potentially transformative influence on EW.
AI driven algorithms can be very effective in the diverse domain of EW, like processing of radar signals for efficient recognition and classification of emitters, detection of jammers and their characteristics, and for developing efficient anti-jamming algorithms. The primary reasons behind the preference for the use of AI-based EW systems are the capability of efficient decision support, handling of large amounts of data, situational awareness, visualization of the evolving scenario, and generation of appropriate responses. Inclusion of an AI algorithm in an EW system makes it highly effective as an autonomous system.
When one side controls the electromagnetic spectrum in an area, their adversaries do not have that control, denying those adversaries the use of accurate navigation, positioning, communications, and other capabilities needed to operate effectively. This denial and disruption of an enemy’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum is going to be ever-more vital to mission success as reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum grows in coming years. Whoever leads in AI technology will no doubt be at a distinct advantage.
 Jamie Gaida, Jennifer Wong Leung, Stephan Robin, and Danielle Cave, ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker: The Global Race for Future Power, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, February 2023, http://bitly.ws/JmZo.