The explosion of mobile communications and, most recently, the emerging Internet of Things are turning the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) into an increasingly crowded place. The advent of 5G, with its need for wide swaths of spectrum in multiple frequency ranges to enable higher data rates, will only intensify this trend and create more conflicts between commercial and government users. The challenge of spectrum management and control will be even more acute for militaries, which depend almost entirely on the EMS for sensing and communications.
The American military is particularly affected by a congested EMS. US forces deploy the most advanced networks of sensors and precision-guided munitions, relying on them for almost all operations. Adversaries like China and Russia, however, have exploited this vulnerability by developing and fielding during the last decade a comprehensive array of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems to contest the spectrum.
The US military, however, did not address the challenge posed by its competitors and numerous assessments argue the US military is now unprepared for competition or conflict in the EMS.1 This situation is particularly frustrating as budgets for EMS operations grew since 2015. Those dollars, unfortunately, flowed predominantly to upgrading legacy systems and attempting to fill the most urgent capability gaps as they arose. Regaining EMS superiority against Chinese and Russian forces at the current pace will take one or two decades – assuming US competitors do not increase their efforts.
DoD should accelerate its efforts to regain an advantage in the spectrum, but likely budget constraints will preclude simply throwing more money at the problem. Instead of perpetuating the current move-countermove competition by attempting to fill every EMS capability gap, the DoD should adopt a new approach to EMS operations focused on asymmetries between US and opposing militaries. An EMS strategy designed to undermine enemy strengths and exploit adversary vulnerabilities may leave some capability gaps intact but could be the only way for the US military to regain EMS superiority in time to forestall opportunistic aggression by one of America’s military competitors.
The most important asymmetry between US and opposing militaries is the adversary’s ‘home team’ advantage and how it impacts EMS operations. For example, Chinese and Russian forces can exploit their proximity to likely conflicts by employing sensor techniques that rely on multiple stationary arrays such as passive Radio Frequency (RF) detection or geolocation and long-range high-frequency radars. As an expeditionary force, the US military is less able to employ these techniques and often relies on active, monostatic radars for situational awareness and defence, exposing US units to enemy detection and geolocation.
The US has a robust EW and EMSO relationship with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies through the NATO Electronic Warfare Advisory Committee (NEWAC) and Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD). The NEWAC is responsible for development of requirements and oversees NATO’s EW policy, doctrine, and C2 concepts, and it oversees EW support to NATO operations and exercises. The CNAD oversees acquisition policy and interoperability. However, interoperability with NATO is becoming more difficult, however, with the introduction of new cognitive and networked US EW and EMSO capabilities, which are not being introduced in other NATO militaries. A renewed focus on emerging spectrum technologies from NATO would help improve integrating capabilities and operations, making U.S and its NATO allies a more formidable and coherent force vis a vis Russia in the EMS competition.
Their home team advantage also allows China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Russian Armed Forces to place EW and sensor systems on their own territory, where they can rely on wired communications, or place them in nearby sea or airspace, where line-of-sight RF communications will be reliable and difficult to jam. The relatively uncluttered spectrum near their territory permits Chinese and Russian militaries to pre-plan their spectrum use. As an expeditionary force, the US military must manage spectrum dynamically.
The proximity of US competitors to likely areas of conflict creates additional asymmetries in force design and command and control (C2) between US and competing militaries. Because the PLA understands where conflict is likely to occur, the Chinese forces to be employed, and the likely variety of enemy dispositions and tactics, the PLA can employ an integrated collection of systems designed to paralyze opposing forces’ C2, communications and sensors, rather than annihilating the enemy through attrition.
The PLA’s operational approach, which Chinese military strategists call System Destruction Warfare, would be implemented through tactics analyzed and agreed to in advance and implemented through pre-architected systems of systems.2 Although it also uses pre-architected systems to defeat an opponent’s C2, the Russian military’s operational approach delegates subordinates more authority to improvise tactics. Similar to PLA leaders, however, Russian commanders are expected to use modeling and cybernetics to scientifically lead forces and anticipate combat outcomes.3
The worldwide commitments of the US military require a much more flexible force design than those pursued by the Chinese or Russian governments. Today this design centres onmonolithic multimission platforms, such as an F-35 or aircraft carrier, and troop formations, which are efficient but reduce the force’s flexibility. Although new DoD concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Multidomain Operations (MDO), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) emphasize more distributed formations, DoD’s investments still prioritize relatively small numbers of multimission platforms and troop formations that lack the numbers or decision support tools to enable distributed operations The flexibility and complexity the US poses to its adversaries that is possible with traditional forces is constrained by the cost of monolithic multimission units, which limits their number. Furthermore, the co-location of all the kill chain elements in a single platform or formation constrains the number of independent paths and nodes possible in a force package. The high value of multi-mission units also requires they be protected, which limits the flexibility possible in the configuration of associated forces.
US forces also need a more adaptable C2 process than competing militaries to accommodate more contested communications, changing force packages, and local conditions. The US military employs ‘mission command’, a concept that relies on the judgement and ability of junior leaders of tactical elements to follow the commander’s intent if communications are lost.4 A lack of planning and management tools available at the tactical level currently hinders their ability to innovate, however, making their actions more predictable to an adversary.
A Return to Manoeuvre Warfare
To regain EMS superiority, DoD should focus on exploiting asymmetries in ways that could undermine adversary strengths or exploit enemy vulnerabilities. Most prominently, the home team advantage of US adversaries could be turned into a weakness if DoD adopts new warfighting approaches that emphasize manoeuvre and complexity over attrition. For example, the PLA’s reliance on relatively static systems of systems and tactics results from its proximity and understanding of likely conflicts, but more dynamic and unpredictable US force postures and capabilities would partially obviate the PLA’s planning and degrade its ability to fight in its near abroad. More dynamic and unpredictable US EMS operations could be especially damaging to Chinese and Russian operational concepts that centre on defeating US C2, communications, and sensors.
To fully exploit the potential of manoeuvre warfare, the US military should replace some of its self-contained multimission platforms that result in highly predictable force packages and tactics with cheaper and less multifunctional units to create a disaggregated and recomposable force. Multimission platforms and multifunctional units are designed to individually address a wider range of threats but because of their sophistication, the difficulty of quickly changing hardware or software components reduces the pace of US military innovation.5 Replacing a small portion of today’s multimission ships, aircraft, or troop formations with smaller, cheaper and less multifunctional units would be enough to enable greater adaptability in US forces packages while imposing considerable complexity on adversaries. This would enable greater adaptability in US force packages while imposing considerable complexity on adversaries. A more disaggregated force would better enable the US military to conduct EMS operations that would be more challenging for an enemy to detect and counter, including passive and multistatic sensing, distributed EW, and decoy operations.
A more disaggregated force will be difficult to manage, however, in a contested communications environment. Instead of DoD’s current trend toward centralized staffs and resilient wide-area communications for distributed operations, the US military should adopt context-centric C2 and Communications (C3). In this approach, C2 relationships are based on communications availability, rather than trying to build a communications architecture to support a pre-determined C2 hierarchy. An essential element of context-centric C3 is planning tools to enable junior leaders at to creatively plan, adapt and recompose their forces and operations. These tools are already being developed and fielded by DoD labs and industry.
The US military’s over-reliance on active monostatic radars will prevent it from creating complexity and uncertainty for an adversary, because these sensors can be detected, classified, and geolocated relatively easily. To more fully support manoeuvre and adaptability, US forces should increasingly use more passive or multistatic sensing, complemented by Low Probability of Intercept/Low Probably of Detection (LPI/LPD) communications and electronic countermeasures.
To support passive and multistatic sensing, every US EMS system should also incorporate Electronic Support (ES) capabilities. US forces will increasingly need to reduce or eliminate their active emissions and find enemy targets using passive geolocation, passive radar, or other covert techniques provided through ES. ES capabilities would also help achieve LPI/LPD characteristics, improve the effectiveness of EW actions, and coordinate EMSO operations with minimal communications. Having an organic ES capability would also enable each system to sense the environment and coordinate friendly force actions in the EMS using onboard Electromagnetic Battle Management (EMBM) programs. Introducing multifunction systems to US forces would increase the variety of locations from which sensing or effects can be provided and would also provide greater adaptability to US forces and create complexity for the adversary, in line with manoeuvre warfare.
Fully exploiting networked and multifunction capabilities to operate at machine speed will require operators to yield some decision-making to the EMSO system. Today, adaptive algorithms that can react to adversary actions are reaching EW systems in operating forces. These programs should be accelerated, along with efforts to establish testing processes and data governance procedures for future cognitive EMSO systems. The most significant impediments to networked EMSO and EMBM are creating interoperable data transmission standards and the varied security levels at which different EMSO systems operate.
EMS manoeuvre and superiority only have meaning if DoD treats the EMS as an operational domain. Today’s approach to EMS operations treats the EMS as a utility, in which actions such as ES, Electronic Attack (EA), and Electronic Protection (EP), communications, and sensing are distinct operations. In a domain construct, these actions would be considered as interrelated operations that can be employed in concert to accomplish the commander’s intent and tasking through manoeuvre in the EMS.
Implementing a New Electromagnetic Spectrum
Moving toward(s) a force that is more disaggregated and recomposable would have significant implications for how DoD identifies and develops new capabilities. To that end, DoD should adopt a more opportunity-based rather than a requirements-based innovation process, which would improve DoD’s ability to incorporate commercial technologies and accelerate the fielding of new EMSO systems. Whereas a requirements-driven development process identifies needs for new capabilities, a systems development process would identify opportunities to improve the force’s performance in important missions.
Finally, the DoD will need to restore its EMSO range facilities for US forces to regain their operational proficiency, develop new operational concepts and tactics, and evaluate the impact of new capability opportunities. Ongoing efforts to upgrade live open-air ranges to modern threats is an ineffective approach due to operational security concerns. DoD should shift its emphasis for EMSO practical training to virtual and constructive facilities, which would enable EW and EMSO concept development, tactics innovation, and proficiency training against the most challenging threats at all security levels. Live EMSO training would still be needed to practice mechanics of EMS operations; however, these operations could focus on less-modern threats or could employ closed-loop radar, communication, and EW systems.
Instead of reacting to adversary moves with its own countermoves, DoD should move in a new direction to gain the ability to achieve EMS superiority and take back the initiative in EMSO. If the DoD does not mount a new, more strategic and proactive approach to fighting in the EMS and developing the requisite capabilities, adversaries could be emboldened to continue their ongoing efforts to gain territory and influence on their peripheries at the expense of US allies and partners.