We’ve all seen the grim images of tanks rolling through muddy fields and buildings reduced to rubble by missile strikes. But some of the most crucial battles taking place in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are invisible to the naked eye. In recent months the Russian military has stepped up its use of the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS), executing advanced Electronic Warfare (EIW) tactics to disrupt, deny and/or degrade Ukrainian drones and other systems. Russia has demonstrated an ability to intercept and decrypt tactical communications in real time – capabilities that Ukrainian military leaders say are slowing its counteroffensive.
As Russia's recent successes illustrate, the EMS is more important to warfighting advantage than ever before. It's also a more contested environment, as countries including Russia and China are advancing technologies at a rate beyond the ability to keep EW systems relevant to the mission. They're leveraging cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and software-defined capabilities that challenge the ability to detect, identify and counter Radio Frequency (RF) threats.
U.S. Air Force (USAF) EW practitioners are, in a sense, operating with one eye blindfolded. They're relying on outdated, slow processes and systems that may fail to take advantage of all available, real-time information sources across the electromagnetic operating environment. Without an integrated architecture that that connects all echelons – from distributed jammers to edge nodes to U.S.-based processing centers – they're not able to effectively analyze, reprogram, and command and control (C2) disaggregated EMSO assets at the speed of need.
Make no mistake: If the U.S. loses the fight over control of the EMS, they lose the fight in all other domains. To ensure dominance in future conflicts, the Department of Defense (DoD) must significantly accelerate investments in building out Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (EMSO) capabilities. By modernizing EMSO data architecture and taking full advantage of widely employed commercial technologies today to give our warfighters a critical edge to outsmart and outmaneuver adversaries on the airwaves tomorrow.
Delivering mission data at campaign speed
Fortunately, U.S. military leaders understand the urgency of this imperative. The DoD is moving to invest in "revolutionary, leap-ahead technologies" as part of its 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy. Meanwhile the USAF has made data the centerpiece of its innovation agenda, with plans to leverage AI, Machine Learning (ML), and robust, cloud-to-edge networks to equip warfighters with data "at the speed of need." The goal is to dramatically shorten the time it takes to deliver mission-critical data to the warfighter as part of an improved Electronic Warfare Integrated Reprogramming (EWIR) process and to build an architecture that enables real-time Electromagnetic Battle Management (EMBM) of distributed offensive and defensive EMS effects in support of U.S. Air Force long-range kill chains.
Distributed yet connected: An EMSO architecture for the modern era
Incremental improvements won't get the DoD and USAF where they need to go. A major shift is needed to move from a platform-centric EW approach to a data-centric, enterprise-wide construct comprised of smaller, smarter and connected EW systems that are decentralized across the battlespace.
The good news? Much of the underlying technologies needed for this new approach are already used in the commercial world. Today's warfighter is familiar with distributed smart sensors, on-board analytics, integrated communications, AI, machine learning (ML), specialized execution applications, cloud computing, and other technologies at the heart of our mobile society. To achieve future EMS dominance, these same technologies and concepts must apply to EMSO and EWIR. Here's how:
Leverage a cloud-connected EMSO data-sharing architecture
Future conflicts will be defined by the "data fight" – victory goes to the side that can observe, orient, decide and act (OODA) on new data faster than its competitor. It's critical, then, that the full power of the cloud is brought to bear through a mesh network of sensors and jammers that significantly accelerate the flow of data to the warfighter, to the engineer who will rapidly devise the solutions they need, and to the battle manager who will dynamically task EMSO assets.
A cloud-connected data architecture provides a flexible, scalable, and cost-effective foundation for many of the USAF's priorities, including an ability to integrate software from a "marketplace" of open EMSO applications, distributed EW effects, EMBM, and rapid reprogramming of leading-edge sensors over the air with Software Defined Radios (SDRs).
- Deploy an advanced edge-processing node
An enterprise node – equipped with next-generation edge-processing capabilities – could consolidate critical EW enablers into a single, "roll-on/roll-off" device to bring advanced processing, databases and applications to the edge while mitigating against degradation of beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) communications. This robust, integrated hardware and software solution would be rapidly reprogrammable and scalable to a variety of platforms, all while remaining compliant with open systems standards. Its communications interface would ingest data from various sources at multiple security levels to build an EMSO common operating picture (COP). This COP would be accessible to C2 assets, distributed platforms, ground-based processing centers, and air bases to deliver shared situational awareness, over-the-air reprogramming of SDR-enabled platforms, and access to rapid mission data file (MDF) updates for legacy platforms.
Harness the power of AI and ML
Integration of AI and ML algorithms into the edge-processing node's software backbone would enable the rapid identification and classification of unknown threat signals and assist with C2 through AI-informed EMSO course of action (COA) development in real time. Better yet, AI tools could learn the adversary's EMSO playbook and develop response strategies (also in real- time). With machines handling much of the burden of "data triage" faster and more accurately than human abilities, the most precious EMSO assets – the people – will be freed up to focus on deeper analysis and making critical human on-the-loop decisions in accordance with commander's intent.
A caveat: While AI stands to deliver vast benefits over the long term, it should be noted that it will take years to build the Technology Readiness Level (TRL), trust, policies, risk tolerances, and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) required to manifest this capability.
The financial and operational advantages of this distributed, software-centric approach abound – including lower maintenance costs, less downtime, and extended lifecycles. And with cloud connectivity enabling rapid deployment of software and cybersecurity measures, the warfighter will be continually equipped with the latest technologies needed to respond to evolving EW threats.
The future is now
Today's EW landscape is complex, chameleon-like, and underpinned by the continuous democratization of technology. To turn inside the threat and invert the adversary's cost curve, the industry must deliver solutions that use data as a weapon. Establishing a resilient, cloud-to-edge architecture that supports dynamic reprogramming and EMBM is a vital path toward weaponizing EW data and achieving overmatch at campaign speed.
U.S. military leadership must retain the strategic vision and willpower to invest in these capabilities while establishing an acquisitions framework that enables industry and academia to contribute to enterprise-wide solutions. Further, the warfighter must have confidence that these rapidly developed technologies will harness data in unprecedented ways that inform how they operate and help them win in future threat environments.
U.S. adversaries have studied the EMSO playbook for decades. They are using widely available technologies to field more advanced systems. It's time for the U.S. to do the same. After all, the battlespace may be invisible, but it holds the key to mission success across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Most importantly: Spectrum dominance increases the chances of bringing warfighters home safely. And that's a goal worth pursuing.
Paul De Lia is the director of Electronic Warfare Strategy Development at L3Harris. He has more than 40 years of experience in technology strategy and innovation, most notably in the areas of space; EW; unmanned systems; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); and commercial wireless.