Electronic warfare: The critical capability of dominating the electromagnetic spectrum

In this interview with Help Net Security, Nick Myers, Director of Business Development, Electronic Combat Solutions at BAE Systems, talks about the evolution of electronic warfare, how it works, and why it’s important to invest in such technology.

electronic warfare

Electronic warfare (EW) is not a completely new concept: battlefield radios have been largely used during conflicts in the modern times. How has EW evolved over time?

Electronic warfare along with the supporting technology has existed for more than a century, and it is a critical capability of the U.S. armed forces today.

EW focuses on ensuring allied forces can use the electromagnetic spectrum – which is used for everything from communications to navigation to targeting – and denying its use by our adversaries.

EW is a cat-and-mouse game. One military force would develop a capability (e.g., a new radar-cued threat system) and its adversary would develop a countermeasure based on the characteristics of the threat once it was detected. In the past, this required hardware development cycles, but things have changed with today’s software-defined radios.

New radar threats using software-defined radios are capable of producing highly agile waveforms across a range of parameters, making them more difficult to detect, identify, and track. EW operations has evolved from a single threat (e.g., a targeting radar) targeting a single platform (e.g., an aircraft) to a modern integrated air defense system (IADS) that works together to target multiple aircraft simultaneously. The initial EW threats worked in a narrow band of the radio-frequency spectrum and today the spectrum is being exploited.

Today’s EW systems need to sense the electromagnetic environment to provide situational awareness to pilots, and the environment is made up of millions of signals from radio to radar, GPS signals, commercial signals, etc. EW systems have to intercept, identify and locate the source of signals, and discern signals from noise (including jamming), and determine which signals have hostile intent – and then do something about them. At the same time, adversaries’ IADSs are trying to hide their intent in the complex environment by emitting signals from multiple sources, changing frequencies, and changing waveforms much quicker than they have in the past.

By helping pilots gain situational awareness, EW systems protect them from threats. For example, they can detect radars trying to locate the aircraft, enabling evasion and survivability, and they can detect inbound threats locked on to the aircraft and engage countermeasures.

Essentially, EW systems are designed to protect and defend our nation’s military platforms by using the electromagnetic spectrum to our advantage.

The F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft is a good example of modern EW. It has a highly classified and very capable EW system that helps makes it the most advanced fighter jet in the world.

To be effective, today’s EW systems need to be scalable, deliver instantaneous bandwidth and high-speed scanning, and detect threats that are difficult to observe (a.k.a. low probability of intercept), and they need to respond rapidly. They need to combine radar warning, geolocation, situational awareness, and self-protection to detect and defeat current and future threats in highly contested, dense signal environments. And they need to be affordable.

The next step in the evolution of EW is what we call “cognitive” EW. Cognitive EW systems leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze characteristics of unknown threat signals when they are first detected in the field and apply EW responses on the fly. The days of collecting novel signals in the field, analyzing them on the ground, and building hardware over several months to address the threat are long gone.

Electronic warfare uses the electromagnetic spectrum. Can you say a bit more about the technology behind it and what makes it effective?

Electronic warfare is based on the manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum, energy that moves in waves at different frequencies at the speed of light. Waves range from wide waves like radio and microwaves, through infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-Rays, and Gamma rays. Waves can come from natural sources, like the sun, heat sources, etc., and they can be radiated via an antenna or other synthetic source and received via a receiver. Some wavelengths are better suited to specific uses, and some waves are harmful to humans, electronics, etc., so they’re not ideal for EW.

EW is effective because it moves at the speed of light, and can be used to transmit information and detect objects. For example, a radar emits a signal and waits for the echoes to bounce off objects (e.g., aircraft, drones, missiles) in the battle space and return at the speed of light. Similarly, a radar warning receiver can detect radar emissions (without making emissions of its own, which are observable) and enable evasion, trigger reaction effects, etc. Receiver range is a key feature in world-class EW systems. Detecting threats before they can detect you delivers a huge battlefield advantage.

Detecting threats while remaining low observable is a key to success in warfare today.

How widespread is the development and usage of EW technology and are there any technical impediments for its deployment?

Some of the primary developers of EW systems include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, China, Russia, Israel, India, Japan, North Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. The electromagnetic battlespace will be contested, meaning that any force operating EW capabilities should expect to operate in a challenging environment, with strong signal density from commercial and defense operations and agile waveforms that will be challenging to detect and counter.

What do countries and organizations need to do to strengthen their national threat defenses?

There is never a doubt that operating in and using the electromagnetic spectrum is necessary to fight and win in today’s and tomorrow’s conflicts. Countries must prioritize and adequately resource (budget) for EW capabilities.

Unfortunately, wars are evolving and becoming more threatening than ever. What do you think the future of electronic warfare and national threat defense will look like?

It’s critical for investment in EW technologies to continue. Developing next-generation systems with highly advanced sensing and jamming capabilities for our warfighters is vital for success. Key areas of investment include adaptive EW, multi-spectral and distributed EW, and next-generation microelectronics.

Dominating the electromagnetic spectrum is a critical capability for warfighters, from the ability to detect threats to the ability to protect those who protect us.

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