Bridging the Air Gap: The Coming “Third Offset”


A New Era of Modern Warfare

Consider yourself warned: other militaries appear to be developing an unsettling attack capability with game-changing consequences for America’s ability to project military might abroad. This platform does not take the form of a precision-guided munition or a next-generation fighter aircraft. It is also not a cyber-attack in the traditional sense, over Internet connections and terrestrial wires. This type of weapon goes by many names, none of them particularly sexy: Radio Frequency (RF) transmission of malware, electronic warfare-delivered computer network attack, or computer network and electronic operations (CNEO), among others. These weapons transmit a devastating cyber-attack not by Internet networks, but by wireless radio, attacking our critical flows of information, rather than physical assets, and threaten to undermine U.S. advantages in intelligence.

CNEO is not a new concept. It is rumored that an Israel airstrike of a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 was made possible by this type of weapon. Reportedly, on 6 September 2007, Israeli F-15’s and F-16’s flew into Syrian territory and executed a precision-guided strike against the facility. During this strike, the Syrian air defense network was utterly paralyzed. Experts have concluded that the Israelis used a form of CNEO to invade Syrian air defense networks, take over as system administrators, and manipulate sensors to cover the aerial strike. In the early 2000’s, the United States reportedly developed and fielded a system similar in design and application, the Suter system, which also has the ability to conduct a cyber-attack via electronic warfare, specifically used to suppress enemy air defense. The Russians allegedly developed this technology in their Khibiny jammer, although these claims are met with some justified skepticism. As platforms designed to utilize radio frequencies as attack vectors come of age, the result may be nothing less than a transition into a new era of modern warfare.

New Era, New Challenges

Technological convergence of wireless radio and computer information systems has presented a monumental paradigm shift in how societies, governments, and militaries collect, process, transmit, and utilize information. Network and information security have largely depended on the “airgap,” or the physical separation of closed information networks, as a reliable defensive measure. CNEO technologies have the strategic advantage of bridging the airgap.

The lines between “cyber,” dominated by terrestrial fiber, and wireless communications, dominated by the electromagnetic spectrum, are becoming blurred. Cyber-warfare makes use of malicious code to infect computers to conduct espionage, sabotage systems, or to launch attacks to deny network access to other, critical machines. Electronic warfare manipulates electromagnetic waves (arranged on the electromagnetic spectrum), the medium of electronic communication, to deny an enemy the ability to use radar, communications, and targeting complexes. The electromagnetic spectrum remains the most accessible and vulnerable medium in this complex network of information exchange. The U.S. military will have to reconcile its current strategies with this changing landscape and offset these vulnerabilities. In order to maintain its technological superiority, the U.S. military needs to do three things:

  1. Invest in innovative technologies to offset weaknesses stemming from an overreliance on information networks.
  2. Make electronic warfare a central component in the U.S. Military Strategy through technological investment, research, procurement, and acquisition.
  3. Redefine cyber-warfare’s role in military engagements as tool of limited use without more advanced enabling technologies like CNEO.

A History of Offsets

The First and Second “Offset Strategies” against the Soviet Union from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and the 1970’s to the 1990’s, respectively, have been discussed and studied at length. In the context of this discussion, though, the geopolitical and strategic ramifications are second to the overarching technological foundation of the Second Offset.

This ‘first offset’ endured until the 1970s, when the advent of precision-guided munitions supported by space-based platforms and new C4ISR networks gave rise to a similarly profound shift in military capabilities, constituting a ‘second offset’. However, the power of this second offset comes with a potential Achilles’ heel: if those C4ISR networks are degraded or disrupted, precision-guided targeting becomes nearly impossible. Over the past several decades this vulnerability has remained largely hypothetical, since the development of wireless communications technologies has far outpaced the ability of our adversaries to jam or destroy our C4ISR platforms. The information and infrastructure heralded by the second offset has become the de facto modern military model. Technological convergence, telecommunication systems, and miniaturization have only lent greater speed to this trend.

Over the past several years, however, our geopolitical rivals’ electronic warfare capabilities have matured, and that fragile technological balance has rapidly begun to shift against us. The U.S. military’s force and scenario planners must now reckon with the reality that we are entering a ‘third offset’ period, where we can no longer take for granted the uncontested military superiority we currently enjoy. We cannot fail to heed these warning signs and to compensate for this shift technologically and strategically. Otherwise, we may discover that our ability to project power globally has eroded beneath our feet, and our technological might has been driven into obsolescence.

Offsetting Our Vulnerabilities

To offset the technological capabilities of potential adversaries, in November 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel initiated what he called the “Third Offset.” In his remarks, Hagel focused on four categories of game-changing capabilities: autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing. Some analysts have criticized the “tech-centric” approach to the strategy, arguing it emphasizes disparate and unrelated innovations and lacks an overarching guiding principle or strategy.

I would argue, however, that each of these technologies addresses current weaknesses of the precision-guided munitions regime and the reconnaissance complex that supports it, both of which are critical for maintaining U.S. military dominance.

Autonomous Systems and Miniaturization

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have introduced new options into the battlefield, and their employment is an integral part of our counter-terrorism strategy in the Middle East. These systems depend on a human controller sending commands over radio via a ground-based transmitter, satellite link, or forward-deployed platform. The weak-link in this command and control (C2) complex is the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for control. Our technological superiority over insurgent and terrorist adversaries has protected us from its disruption. Despite insurgents’ demonstrated ability to intercept UAV signals, they do not have the resources to field an electronic warfare system that can interfere with or spoof the signals necessary for control. By diminishing or eliminating the human element altogether, UAVs reduce the most glaring means of its own disruption. There are, of course, ethical concerns over handing command and control to a machine and giving it options to unilaterally end human life or initiate conflict. The Pentagon will have to proceed with caution to assuage public anxiety and mitigate potential humanitarian concerns.

The miniaturization of components, too, supports the trend of reduced human interaction. As the adoption of intelligent machines in warfare will largely depend on their ability to successfully and quickly assess risk, identify threats, and employ countermeasures to a level commiserate with or surpassing a human, miniaturization and increasing processing power are directly tied their feasibility and utility. Furthermore expendable, super-intelligent, autonomous drones allow swarm tactics against potential adversaries. Whereas precision-guided munitions require the vast C4ISR complex for targeting information and control, drone swarms do not depend upon the electromagnetic spectrum or large C4ISR complexes in the same degree. Autonomous swarms also present too many targets to account for, turning the greatest strength of precision-guided munitions into their greatest weakness.

Big Data and “Advanced Manufacturing”

Effective precision strikes depend on collecting, transmitting, and processing large amounts of information in a timely manner. The current military regime has responded to this demand by proliferating sensors, communications systems, and intelligence centers.   The resulting overabundance of information and intelligence brings a number of challenges. The ultimate utility of intelligence lies in getting the right information to the right people at the right time. With the profusion of information, the manning resources required to fulfill these intelligence needs quickly has increased exponentially. The frequent turnover of military, civilian, and contracting personnel only complicates that endeavor. “Big data”, or using software to decrease processing time while increasing overall accuracy and relevance, promises to partially liberate U.S. intelligence networks a detrimental reliance on human involvement. In an environment where intelligence collection has been denied or disrupted, big data analytics could also theoretically find connections among scant data and be used to exploit new avenues of collection. Big data mitigates damage incurred by denial of the electromagnetic spectrum because it potentially allows us to do more with less and far, far more in the best of conditions.

Big data generally would decrease the time for U.S. forces to recognize vulnerabilities in enemy defenses and formulate appropriate countermeasures. “Advanced manufacturing”, or the ability to use advanced technologies to manufacture technologically sophisticated and tailored systems quickly, would allow U.S. forces flexibility in using 3-D printers wholly create new or modify existing weapons as countermeasures. Instead of spending millions to invest in defense technologies suited for a specific scenarios, advanced manufacturing promises to allow flexibility in customizing weapons, drones, and machines to fit changing warfare environments. In many ways, the advanced manufacturing initiative echoes a broader change in military thought, where the payloads aboard large platforms need to be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The old regime of integrated systems built for specific situations is quickly becoming obsolete. The Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert calls this change “payloads over platforms” and runs parallel to Secretary Hagel’s call for advanced manufacturing.

The Preeminence of Electronic Warfare

The third offset initiative notably overlooks both cyber and electronic warfare. The greatest success of the precision-guided munitions revolution was not the payloads of missiles and bombs, but rather the information infrastructure it created. This revolution divided the battlefield into the physical and information dimensions. Physical space—distance, altitude, and depth—is the common medium for warfare between physical military assets. Similarly, the electromagnetic spectrum—frequency, wavelength, and protocols—forms the common medium for warfare between electronic and cyber assets in the virtual battlefield. Dominating physical and virtual space is necessary for winning wars.

Autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and, to a lesser degree, advanced manufacturing, diminish our most glaring vulnerabilities, but are incomplete solutions. The United States leads the charge towards a new military paradigm, while the rest of the world still operates in the strategies, terms, and technologies of the second offset. In other words, while potential adversaries assess our current vulnerabilities, the United States should still capitalize on vulnerabilities of our enemies that operate in an era dominated by precision-guided munitions.

In that regard, increasing both our electronic warfare cyber warfare capabilities is imperative. Electronic warfare, however, does not enjoy a level of funding or support that cyber does, and after over a decade of warfare against an enemy in which electronic warfare plays a secondary role, the Pentagon has seemingly forsaken the battle for dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. This has been echoed in op-eds, government reports, by military leaders, and by the Pentagon itself with increasingly regularity. To maintain its edge, the United States must attach the same importance onto electronic warfare that it does the offset technologies above.

Redefining Cyber-warfare’s Role in Military Engagements

Using cyber-weapons in future engagements will fundamentally depend on the electromagnetic spectrum, where technological convergence liberates the cyber-battlefield from the confines of fiber lines. Cyber-weapons transmitted over the Internet will only be of limited use. As global fears over cyber intrusions and cyber sabotage grow, the Internet is increasingly limited by the geopolitical borders of the physical world. In a reversion to a more nationalistic system of internet governance, countries like China and Russia have developed the capability to cut themselves off from the internet, effectively severing themselves from the greater global infrastructure. China, in particular, has a record of promoting this view of the Internet and increasing “border defenses” and employing Internet “kill switch” technologies. The U.S. itself put internet kill-switch legislation on the table and the president has signed a similar executive order. Leaders around the globe are beginning to see the openness and availability of the Internet as a liability in any conflict.

The primary vector for cyber-attack then becomes the electromagnetic spectrum and necessitates the ability to deliver a cyber-payload by bridging the airgap. Defenses such as encryption present formidable obstacles. Furthermore, a successful network invasion relies on covert action, as well as exploiting specific vulnerabilities. Identifying vulnerabilities shifts the burden to intelligence, or else these weapons sit in reserve. The intelligence burden increases considerably as military forces have to expend resources to maintain constant awareness of those systems. It is a specific weapon for a specific enemy, as this article explains.

The United States is not alone in developing these weapons. Chinese information warfare experts have repeatedly called for the development of these CNEO technologies, but cite the high intelligence requirements as a point of concern. Russian defense companies are also paying attention. If the reports are to be believed, they too are actively developing this technology.

As potential foreign adversaries continue to modernize their C4ISR systems and use the electromagnetic spectrum, dominating it will remain the lynchpin in military victory. The U.S. military will have to adapt and innovate, as it has many times before, to maintain its ability to project force and present a credible deterrent against would-be geopolitical rivals.


John Costello is a research associate at Defense Group Inc. He is a US Navy veteran and former Department of Defense analyst. He can be reached at Twitter handle @straybellwether


Image: Ludovic F. Rembert, CC (