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What is Electronic Warfare?

Understanding Electronic Warfare

This is the contest for control of the electromagnetic spectrum, a battle fought through the discipline of electronic warfare, or EW, and without it there can be no mission success.

On the modern battlefield, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Above and beyond the missions we can see and hear – on the ground, in the air and at sea – a hidden battle pulses and surges, and along with it, the prospects of victory or defeat.

Why Electronic Warfare Matters

Modern military capabilities rely increasingly on the electromagnetic spectrum. Warfighters depend on the spectrum to communicate with each other and their commanders, to understand the environment and inform decisions, to accurately identify and engage targets, and to protect them from harm.

EW provides a vitally important function – protecting our access and use of the spectrum – while simultaneously denying and degrading an adversary’s use and access.

Electronic Warfare is a Game of Cat and Mouse

The story of electronic warfare is one of intrigue, secrecy and technological innovation at the cutting edge. Throughout its history, EW has played a significant role in helping military leaders maintain a strategic edge in a battlespace experiencing rapid technological advances.

As nations learned to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum for military advantage – in areas like communications, navigation and radar – military strategists and scientists simultaneously engineered ways to deny their adversaries those similar advantages. A cat-and-mouse dynamic emerged in the competition for spectrum superiority – one that continues to define the advancement of the field today.

Global technologies and developments in EW are leveling the playing field. The proliferation and affordability of commercial electronics and computing power means that EW is no longer the exclusive province of wealthy nations; it is now a battlefield for smaller states and even non-state actors. EW helps sort through this complexity, making sure our systems are able to communicate, identify and combat enemy radar.

The future of U.S. and allied spectrum superiority will require increasingly innovative strategies that keep our warfighters ahead of current and emerging threats.

Electronic Warfare: How, Where and Why

How does a fighting force use the electromagnetic spectrum? What does spectrum superiority look like? The answer depends on the mission at hand and the specific circumstances facing the warfighter.

Electronic warfare is employed in three ways: offensive, defensive and supportive measures. In other words, the spectrum is used to attack the enemy, to protect friendly forces and to provide critical situational awareness that aids warfighter decision-making and increases the likelihood of mission success.

What's in an Electronic Warfare System?

An electronic warfare system, whether configured to attack, protect or support, must have a way to collect and make sense of the signals in its environment.

Electronic warfare (EW) systems can be configured for a variety of different missions and use a host of different subsystems. But despite this incredible sophistication and diversity, there are three main capabilities common to most electronic warfare systems – sensing the environment (receiver sensor), analyzing the environment (signal analysis), and responding to the environment (technique generation and high power transmission).

Sense and understand the environment

An electronic warfare system, whether configured to attack, protect or support, must have a way to collect and make sense of the signals in its environment. It must identify what’s out there, understand how it’s using the spectrum, and determining if it’s a threat. This is the system’s “receive” capability, and it is usually performed by a subsystem called radar warning receiver (RWR).

Address threats head on

If the RWR detects a signal and analysis determines it to be an unavoidable threat, the EW system must then neutralize it and passes the threat data to the technique generator which determines how the system should respond to address the threat. The technique generator will select the jamming technique with the highest likelihood of success, based on a number of factors including the particular threat’s characteristics, the EW system’s host platform and the domain of battle – land, sea or air.

Jam, broadcast, transmit

For an EW system to conduct electronic attack or electronic protect missions, it must be able to broadcast signals of its own to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. Once a threat is analyzed, and a response generated, it’s the ability of the EW system’s transmitter(s) to precisely radiate electromagnetic energy that makes jamming, spoofing, deception and other electronic countermeasures possible.

Electronic Attack

Electronic attack is used to degrade, disable or destroy an adversary’s use of the spectrum.

Electronic attack may be used to deny an adversary’s ability to communicate, navigate, gather intelligence or locate targets on the battlefield.

Electronic attack is an integral part of a military operation, enabling and empowering land, sea and air forces to achieve their missions. It is often employed by friendly forces to establish air superiority through the suppression of enemy air defenses and disruption of communications.

Because it is intended to create wholesale confusion and disruption of an adversary’s ability to communicate, monitor and protect its airspace, electronic attack is typically performed by dedicated units – in the air or at sea – whose primary purpose is to achieve wide area spectrum dominance.

Electronic Protection

Electronic protection is also used to deny adversarial forces’ use of the electromagnetic spectrum, but its posture is defensive.

Electronic protection systems defend individual aircraft, ships, ground vehicles and personnel from electronic threats by providing a protective shield around the platforms and crews in the immediate vicinity.

Electronic protection systems provide threat warning and the means to actively protect themselves.

By understanding the threat landscape, warfighters can avoid detection, prevent hostile systems from locating or tracking them, and, if engaged, generate electronic countermeasures that defeat the threat by a variety of means, including radar jamming, deception or other sophisticated techniques.

L3Harris Electronic Protection Solutions

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Electronic Support and Electronic Intelligence

Electronic support measure (ESM) technology enables warfighters to passively monitor and understand how the spectrum is being used across the battlespace.

The electronic support mission provides situational awareness and understanding of the electromagnetic battlespace: What signals are out there? What kind of system is broadcasting it? What can we infer about their intentions? Are they friend or foe?

ESM technology helps commanders create a comprehensive operational picture of allied and adversary disposition alike allowing informed tactical decision making.

ESM is tactically important because it equips forces to prioritize and respond to potential threats in real time. ESM systems often are integrated with electronic attack and electronic protect systems to deploy countermeasures against active, electronically guided threats like anti-air or anti-ship weapons, autonomously, without the need for human intervention. These real time responses are critical to the crew and the platform’s survivability.

Electronic Intelligence

Through the sustained collection of spectrum data, electronic support also provides electronic intelligence in the conflict zone.

Electronic intelligence (ELINT) is the longer-term collection of spectrum data which is used to develop and maintain comprehensive threat libraries. These threat libraries hold great strategic value. Taken together with Communications Intelligence or (COMINT), they are part of the larger Signals Intelligence mission (SIGINT).

ELINT helps military strategists develop insights into how to manage operations in contested areas and other militarily important locations, and gives aviators, sailors and ground forces an idea of what kind of threats they may encounter, and the peace of mind that they have the right countermeasures to stay ahead of them.

ESM systems use SIGINT, to identify threat systems, determine who owns them, locate them, and assess their level of threat. Sophisticated ESM systems are beginning to employ machine intelligence to categorize and rapidly respond to threats. ESM technology currently under development will be able to extend this intelligence to characterizing threats never before encountered as part of the exciting, and growing field of adaptive and eventually cognitive EW.

L3Harris ESM and ELINT Solutions

Click on the following links to learn more about L3Harris' ESM and ELINT solutions.

The Wave of the Future: The Evolution of Electronic Warfare

The future of electronic warfare is about ensuring spectrum-wide superiority at all times, in all domains.

Throughout the history of electronic warfare, the future has always arrived quickly. The continuous game of cat and mouse between adversaries has meant that any force striving to maintain an edge must always be thinking several moves ahead.

But the pace of technological advance and proliferation is accelerating: computing power and advanced electronics are cheaper; more powerful and easily accessible. It is easier than ever for adversaries to effectively compete in the electromagnetic spectrum and challenge longstanding advantages.

The future is about ensuring spectrum-wide superiority at all times, in all domains. Like today, the capabilities of the future will involve using the spectrum to attack, defend and understand battlefield dynamics. But all this will be done faster, more covertly and more autonomously than today.

Electromagnetic spectrum maneuvers will be more agile, and forces better equipped to pivot in real time to changes on the battlefield, even employing the spectrum to mount new kinds of attacks on hostile infrastructure and networks.

Electronic warfare systems must be capable of deploying overwhelming power with minute precision, of deploying countermeasures to counter never-before-encountered threats, of intelligent spectrum management and sharing with joint and allied forces.

Achieving this will require incremental improvements and ingenious innovations, new ways of addressing old problems and solutions to problems that don’t yet exist. This is where we’re headed:

Key Concepts and Capabilities of Electronic Warfare

  • Smaller and lighter, more power with less energy: It’s clear that small-size, weight and power (SWAP) systems will drive the near-term evolution of EW. Powerful digital capabilities in smaller packages will be critical to extending spectrum superiority to small, unmanned systems and rotary platforms where every ounce counts, as well as to dismounted forces constantly on the move. Small, light and affordable systems will enable a whole range of new solutions that bring once-costly EW capabilities to single-use or expendable platforms like missiles and decoys.
  • Multifunctional and reprogrammable: giving systems the ability to pivot in real time from one function to another is the cornerstone of agile and adaptable EW. Whether through manual on-the-fly reprogramming or intelligent, autonomous reconfiguration, a system’s ability to perform multiple functions like EA, EP and ESM, as needs evolve, is all but expected. Innovations will allow systems to transmit and receive simultaneously without unwanted interference or signal fratricide. Machine learning will usher in a new generation of cognitive EW systems that learn how to categorize and respond to new threats and reduce the burden on the warfighter.
  • Modular, open and scalable: Systems that function independently, or that can be connected together to handle a greater diversity of threats simultaneously, will help enable future forces to control the spectrum. The ability to add new functions to a system or to create a networked “system of systems” will make EW operations more flexible, resilient and easier to maintain. Modular, software-defined and scalable systems will enable powerful capabilities like distributed jamming against multiple threats and facilitate cooperation between manned and unmanned systems in the battlespace.