Combat in the Electro-Magnetic Spectrum: A Key Element for Force Innovation and Integration

By John Conway

Besides Jericho, there is another seven-letter, three-syllable word, beginning with ‘J’ currently doing the rounds in Defence circles – JEMSORA.

Under a bill introduced in the US House of Representatives last month, the US military would be obligated to ensure access to the electromagnetic spectrum and protect the communication and navigation systems enabling National Defence Strategy.

In short, JEMSORA would direct the US military to develop EW integrating capabilities, conduct modelling and war-gaming scenarios for joint electromagnetic spectrum operations (JEMSO), and ensure accountability to Government.

So why the urgency and why enshrine JEMSO readiness in law? Like the RAAF’s Plan JERICHO, JEMSORA is all about building relationships and reminding people that EW interoperability starts with leadership and policy, not technology.

Integration and interoperability mean different things to different people, but there should be a general agreement, at least, that they involve both humans and technology working together as a team.

New warfighting domains

The electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is the physical environment that includes electronic radiation produced by radios, radars, mobile phones, navigation systems, and other types of military equipment. Modern warfare requires protected access to the EMS while simultaneously denying its use by the enemy through activities like jamming and deception.

And while EW has been defined traditionally in military terms by action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the EMS, the three major subdivisions within electronic warfare: electronic attack, electronic protection, and electronic warfare support, are becoming increasingly relevant outside the military.

Examples including wireless networks in the workplace, mobile phones, commercial applications of the Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and driverless vehicles of the future are all highly vulnerable to EW.

In fact, the EMS is fast maturing as a warfighting domain in its own right. For some countries like Russia, EW is not just a part of their strategy; it is their strategy. This means countries like the US and Australia need the ways and means of synchronising superior capabilities in the physical domains with the next generation of EW and cyber capabilities in the information domain.

Force level EW and JEMSO

The physical and non-physical elements of the battlespace come together at the operational, or whole-of-force level. Force-level EW, or FLEW, represents the integration of traditional EW capability with strategic and tactical ISR, intelligence, and EW battle-management functions, including command and control.

FLEW assets such as the EA-18G Growler conduct missions in isolation or provide real-time tactical support to other platforms and ground forces to improve mission effectiveness across the air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace domains.

The central and essential integrating capability for FLEW is JEMSO.

JEMSO synchronises spectrum access and deconfliction activities with the intelligence, ISR, and targeting aspects of EW needed to control FLEW assets. It also provides the human-machine interface with the commander to enable and support the operational decision-making processes.

But JEMSO is only a means to an end.

The Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Readiness Act 2018 was co-sponsored by Congressman Don Bacon – House Armed Services Committee member and Electronic Warfare Working Group Co-Chair, and Jimmy Panetta, recognising the US military has become “increasingly dependent on electromagnetic spectrum access across all domains”.

What Congressman Bacon basically said was the US military concept of operations could be dismantled by brute force EW without a sophisticated and integrated approach to the development of future EW capability. GPS, datalinks and satellite communications have been taken for granted for too long; future operations are likely to play out in environments where GPS, voice and other communication links are at best degraded, and at worst completely denied.

Future operations will involve a contest to gain control of the EMS with the same urgency as control of the air. The recent strike against suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities signalled a clear shift towards sophisticated, multi-domain operations. But as highlighted in the recent Sir Richard Williams Foundation Seminar, there is a world of difference between a single strike and a sustained high-intensity conflict against a near-peer aggressor with advanced EW capability.

Taking the lead

There are of course implications for Australia, given the Commonwealth’s investment in advanced and predominantly US-sourced EW capability such as the EA-18G Growler. However, our policy backdrop is far more favourable than the US and is enhanced even further by the recent release of the Defence Industrial Capability Plan and the new Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities.

Australian Defence policy now prioritises several EW-related capabilities, such as enhanced active and passive phased array radars, signature reduction technologies, advanced signal processing, cyber and information security, signature management, complex systems integration, and test, evaluation, certification and systems assurance. Much of this is highly leveraged to JEMSO.

Within the next few years Australia will have some of the best EW technology available. Like it or not Australia is now an EW leader, not a follower; and the emerging challenge is to ensure we have the capability frameworks in place at an enterprise level to exploit a significant strategic advantage. The associated opportunities for industry and academia, especially in the delivery of EW enabling capabilities are massive.

“In the next five years Australian EW capability will transform from being largely focussed on platform self-protection to a potent joint force capability comprising both defensive and offensive capabilities,” CEO of specialist EW services provider AeroPM, Emily Frizzell says. “This will require integration, not just with other EW capabilities but with the next generation of ISR platforms and C2 systems in the air, land, maritime, space and cyber domains”.

The US interoperability challenges are complicated by the sheer scale of the US military machine and its many competing and disparate stakeholders. Everyone knows EW integration can be hard at the best of times, but the complexity is compounded by the diverse range of older analogue systems which need to be integrated with newer technology digital platforms. Architecture-led EW integration is easy to say but almost impossible to execute if the policy is not there to say ‘you must resource it and, above all, do it’.

The ADF is much better placed than the US both in terms of the scale and modernity of our new EW systems. The ADF’s ongoing equipment recapitalisation brings many dividends – a lesson we should enshrine in future force design.

Lost the edge

Congressman Bacon is quite specific in his assessment, saying, “We have lost our edge in this critical domain and need to quickly restore readiness in the electromagnetic spectrum to ensure we can execute the National Defense Strategy.”

Out of necessity some say, US EW capability was traded-off to protect bigger ticket platform procurements and, of course we cannot ignore the reality of Sequestration when the service chiefs had to think the unthinkable. But in the process, US EW was substantially relegated to platform self-protection to ensure survival of the force structure.

The lack of advocacy and informed contestability at the joint level meant there were limited checks and balances in place to assess the impact on mission effectiveness and strategic outcomes. The result was a fragmented EW capability and an obvious vulnerability which has now been exploited with potentially catastrophic consequences.

JEMSORA will be a key policy driver for EW integration in the US. Without it, process, technology and organisational friction will continue to characterise the EW problem. Single service needs, of course will continue to be critical and must be underpinned by domain expertise, but the future fight needs EW integration at the force level involving joint service co-operation and a means of replicating the single service attitudes to test, experimentation and training excellence.

All is not lost

While acknowledging it has lost its edge, the US still has a highly sophisticated EW capability by any standard. It just so happens Russia and China have closed the gap by investing heavily in EW for the past two decades, while the US and its allies fought tactical counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Russians recognise the asymmetric potential of EW especially when integrated with cyber operations; they base entire operational concepts around EW rather than it being an afterthought.  But there is more than an element of brute force about Russian EW, and they are a long way from integrated multi-domain operations which characterised the recent strike on Syria.

Open source intelligence suggests the recent US-led strike in Syria was a significant shift from the playbook of the last two decades. Stand-off long-range ‘kinetic’ cruise missile attacks against highly-defended targets on the ground hit the front pages, but further analysis indicates this was a multi-agency, multi-axis, multi-domain attack which rendered the Russian-built Syrian air defence systems impotent, albeit temporarily.

This time there was no tactical strikes from US carriers; it was a powerful message, not just to Syria and its allies, as well as others who may have been watching, that anti-access strategy is easier said than done.

It is highly likely the strike involved ‘non-kinetic’ activities by Prowler, Compass Call, Rivet Joint and Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD) to name but a few US EW capabilities, which caused havoc in the EMS while the cruise missiles flew unimpeded to their targets, while activity in the cyber domain would have added to the confusion. Images of deceived Syrian air defences firing blindly into the night sky was clear evidence they were completely overwhelmed and powerless to prevent the attack.

Mission execution

This kind of attack is enabled by JEMSO and, more broadly a sophisticated multi-domain command and control capability, MDC2. MDC2 goes beyond the traditional definitions of C4ISR and, most importantly, recognises that technology is only part of the problem.

The answer lies beyond the traditional science and technology-centric view of EW. This is an operational problem which cannot be solved by technology alone.

Emily Frizzell agrees, “As an engineer, it has become increasingly obvious to me that future EW problem-solving will require a new approach involving integrated teams. There will be an ongoing need for EW engineering specialists, but they will also need to be part of multi-disciplinary groups working alongside the warfighters given the complex and dynamic nature of the future battlespace.”

Australian EW-related thought-leadership is well under way. In 2018, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation facilitated an EW seminar on the need for ‘A new approach and attitude to EW’. While giving a nod to the future technology aspects of EW, the seminar also addressed the human aspects.  Not just cognitive EW, but more fundamental issues like how to get the workforce balance right between EW specialists and EW generalists.

EW is moving further into mainstream military activities and is converging with adjacent concepts in the space and cyber domains. Building EW competency at the individual and organisational level is a priority, but it will take time.

Meanwhile, as the organisation builds competency in complex EW capability people will need their career expectations to be met. Sadly, EW has traditionally been a career dead-end; it is a very rewarding and professionally challenging way to spend your time in uniform, but the reality is that it rarely gets you promoted. Until now?

Learning from Cyber

For most of us, warfighting in the EMS remains a difficult concept to grasp.

Making the case to the public about the susceptibility of your smart phone, watch or car to electronic attack is one thing, but building a case for Government project approvals in complex, integrated EW involving JEMSO takes it to another level.

The cyber community has been very successful in making cyber relevant to a much broader group of people outside specialist pockets of expertise in Defence.  The emergence of airborne electronic attack, and the convergence of EW with cyber provides a great opportunity to leverage a broader audience and bring EW into mainstream Defence thinking and planning. And, once again, Australia is extremely well placed from both a policy and organisational standpoint.

Move over EW, meet Information Warfare!

Reporting to the Chief of Joint Capabilities AVM Warren McDonald, the Information Warfare Division was formed in July 2017 as a result of the formation of the Australian Defence Force Headquarters.  Headed by the Deputy Chief Information Warfare MAJGEN Marcus Thompson, it comprises four branches – Information Warfare Capability, C4 and Battle Management Capability, Capability Support Directorate, and the Joint Cyber Unit.

The Information Warfare Division provides a focal point for FLEW and essential integrating elements such as JEMSO. For want of a better term, it operationalises FLEW and ensures the focus on effect rather than technology.

Looking ahead

Integrated, multi-domain operations provide the all-important context for the development of Australian EW as part of an advanced Information Warfare capability which complements the significant investment in the physical weapon systems which characterise the air, land, maritime, and space domains.

The Commonwealth should be congratulated for the way in which it has comprehensively set the conditions for future operational success by ensuring the policy and organisation frameworks are in place to exploit an extremely wise and sophisticated investment in Information Warfare capability.

There is still much to be done in terms of developing the enabling Multi-Domain Command and Control capability including JEMSO. Not least, the development of the training, test and experimental capability necessary to achieve the levels of proficiency needed to counter an increasingly sophisticated and fast-moving threat.

The future opportunities for Australian industry are significant and involve SMEs and primes in equal measure. The Defence Industrial Capability Plan and the new Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities provide the foundation for Australian industry to play their part creating one of the world’s most modern and effective Information Warfare capabilities.

Senior level advocacy across all the services, industry, and academia is a critical aspect of future Information Warfare development, which relies on relationships and organisational integration to establish the MD C2 capability necessary to stay ahead of the threat.

Humans and technology working together as a team.

This feature appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of ADBR