Fighting and Winning in the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Starlink has proved critical for combat operations in Ukraine, and the system appears nimble enough to withstand sophisticated Russian electromagnetic attack. The U.S. military once dominated this domain, but due to lack of investment and years of flying close air-support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. skills have atrophied. Starlink’s agility has impressed many senior leaders. This realization, however, is not new. While addressing the Air Force Association’s 2021 Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, said: “If we lose the war in the electromagnetic spectrum, we lose the war in the air, and we lose it quickly.”
The electromagnetic spectrum is a critical aspect of American and Western airpower, which has led some to dub it the next high ground. This renewed focus on the spectrum is further reflected in the 2020 Department of Defense Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy and associated service strategies. Despite this, the joint force is not investing in capabilities to ensure dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum. This is particularly acute in the air domain, where the U.S. military has invested less in the spectrum than adversaries committed to disrupting how the United States plans for and fights wars.
Both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China have invested resources into challenging American advantages in the electromagnetic spectrum. These investments are designed to detect low-observable fighters and bombers and to disrupt the kill chains that the U.S. military relies upon to plan the opening days and months of military campaigns. In order to compete with these adversaries, the U.S. military should reinvigorate training to provide a realistic view of a contested environment; maintain current offensive electromagnetic warfare capabilities until newer advanced systems can be fielded; and hasten the development of new systems to deny adversaries freedom of maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Defining the Problem
The electromagnetic spectrum is defined as the entire frequency spectrum of radiated energy to include radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, and ionizing radiation. The whole range has some applicability for military use, but some sections are used more commonly. Radio and microwaves are used for communication and radars, while the infrared spectrum is used primarily for weapons guidance.
The Department of Defense has a much broader definition of the electromagnetic spectrum, describing it as “a maneuver space essential for facilitating control within the operational environment and impacts all portions of the [operational environment] and military operations.” While this definition does convey the importance of the electromagnetic spectrum for military operations, it neither defines what it is nor how it can be used to threaten friendly operations. In other words, a layman reading solely the definition of the electromagnetic spectrum in joint doctrine would know that it is something important, but not that almost all military hardware depends on it. This layman would also not know what an adversary could do in the electromagnetic spectrum to threaten U.S. and allied forces. This lack of clarity is indicative of a larger lack of focus on the electromagnetic spectrum relative to U.S. adversaries.
China and Russia have well-developed electromagnetic spectrum doctrines for use during a conflict. The concept of electromagnetic warfare, military actions involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy, is termed “radio electronic combat” by the Russian military.
This concept is so well known in Russia that there is common Russian military saying that a third of the adversary will be destroyed by attrition, a third will be rendered ineffective through jamming, and the other third will fall apart as a result. This idea has been present in Russian military thought since the Russo-Japanese War and it has developed into a key component of Russian information warfare doctrine, which is integrated with cyber and other disinformation techniques. This was most recently demonstrated during conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine prior to the full invasion in 2022. The goal is to integrate cyber warfare and disinformation to disrupt adversary command and control, and thereby limit the decisions that an adversary can make in order to force a more advantageous outcome for Russian forces.
While the Russian military has clearly not executed this doctrine in Ukraine, nor have they been able to even gain temporary air superiority over a much smaller air force, it is still too early to make a determination about why the Russian military may have failed. There are signs, however, that the Russian military is refocusing on its electromagnetic capabilities. Not only could this give the Russian military the potential to hinder Ukrainian advances and further prolong the war, but it also gives them real-world experience fighting in the electromagnetic spectrum that the United States lacks.
Likewise, China has adopted Russian thought and has recognized the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain equivalent with air, land, and sea that must be both defended and exploited. In 2016, China incorporated its electronic warfare forces into the newly created Strategic Support Force, along with cyber and psychological warfare units, to better harmonize these efforts. This alignment was a key move in the Chinese development of integrated network and electromagnetic warfare, or networked electromagnetic warfare, the coordinated use of electronic warfare, cyber, and information warfare to gain an asymmetric advantage over an adversary by paralyzing their decision-making process.
The Chinese concept recognizing the electromagnetic spectrum as an offensive maneuver space to attack U.S. communications, datalinks, and decision cycles, combined with their development of advanced anti-access area denial capabilities to prevent force packaging and keep U.S. forces far from the Chinese coastline, is a potent mix that could put the U.S. military at a disadvantage. China’s government has also developed and deployed both manned and unmanned electronic warfare aircraft in recent years to pair an offensive capability with their advanced missile air defenses.
A Lost Advantage?
The United States has never identified the electromagnetic spectrum as a warfighting domain. In 2015, the Department of Defense came close to designating it a domain, but instead chose to designate cyberspace as one. Yet, the United States held the clear advantage for a short period during the 1980s and 1990s after integrating lessons learned from suppressing Soviet-built surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam. The apex of this experience was the quick and efficient takedown of Iraq’s integrated air-defense system in the 1991 Gulf War. This was accomplished through jamming aircraft blinding Iraqi radars and cutting their communications, while anti-radiation missiles and air-to-surface weapons were used to suppress or destroy Iraqi surface-to-air missiles. All aspects of Iraq’s area defense system were effectively neutralized.
However, during the following decades, the United States cut funding for electromagnetic spectrum platforms and equipment. As Mike Pietrucha wrote in these pages, “the Air Force dismantled a wildly successful ‘Electronic Combat triad’, consisting of the EF-111A, the F-4G, and the EC-130.” The F-16 has picked up the F4-G’s anti-radiation missile role, but the Air Force never replaced the EF-111, instead relying on the Navy to provide additional expeditionary EA-6Bs and now EA-18Gs for the joint force. The Marine Corps also retired its EA-6B fleet without an offensive electromagnetic warfare replacement. The remaining defensive equipment across the joint force is generally analog and pre-programmed, with a long lead time to make changes when a new threat is identified. Along with an overall lack of appreciation of the significance of electromagnetic spectrum capabilities, this has greatly weakened the advantage that the U.S. military once held.
The American military should change its thinking on how the joint force uses electromagnetic attack. For too long, the United States has seen electromagnetic capabilities primarily as defensive tools. The focus has been on protecting aircraft versus attacking U.S. adversaries in the electromagnetic spectrum. Additionally, in order to compete with adversaries, the United States should recognize the linkages between cyber, information, and electromagnetic warfare. While the National Defense Strategy mentions cyber twenty times, it mentions electromagnetic warfare only once, and with the outdated terminology of “electronic warfare.” This lopsided focus on only one aspect of information operations needs to change. The United States should now regard the electromagnetic spectrum as a critical maneuver space that it should exploit to prevail in a conflict.
Furthermore, the U.S. military has not focused on training in a fully contested electromagnetic environment for quite some time. This is particularly the case for air combat exercises. In 1979 the Air Force created the Green Flag exercise, which was designed to train pilots to operate in a fully contested electromagnetic spectrum environment and included aggressor squadrons focused on electromagnetic warfare to simulate Soviet electronic attack. After the Cold War, this focus waned and the exercise was subsumed by the former Air Warrior exercise, which took on the Green Flag name and has redirected its focus to close air support operations and integration with Army exercises. Air exercises like Red Flag do still include some aspects of a contested electromagnetic spectrum, but this is not the main purpose of these events and the electromagnetic training is made easier to allow for pilots and ground forces to achieve other objectives. This means that the training is not as realistic as it could be, and not geared toward simulating the most modern threats that the United States now faces.
Divestment and Budget Attrition
The divestment from electromagnetic warfare and a focus on other training objectives makes perfect sense, given the post-Cold War conflicts that the United States has been involved in. However, the focus on smaller, less-intense conflicts where air superiority is assured has decreased the focus on the higher-end capabilities needed to support operations against a large power like Russia or China. While large force exercises have a renewed focus on higher-end capabilities in line with potential adversaries, the ability to fight in a contested electromagnetic spectrum has atrophied to the point where the U.S. military may no longer realize the benefits of being able to do so.
While there have been some recent advances in defensive systems, such as the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System for the F-15, there has been little movement on offensive electromagnetic warfare. If the United States desires to compete against its adversaries in the electromagnetic spectrum, the joint force needs to achieve superiority in that spectrum to protect friendly communications, the exchange of data and information, and the completion of friendly kill chains, all while disrupting adversaries’ ability to do the same. That last part is key: While China and Russia have developed robust offensive capabilities, the United States has not invested in similar offensive capabilities in decades.
While several Department of Defense leaders have publicly recognized the importance of the electromagnetic spectrum, leaders often sacrifice platforms to save money during debates about the defense budget. In 2022, the Navy sought to divest five squadrons of land-based EA-18G electromagnetic attack aircraft, the primary offensive radar electromagnetic attack aircraft in the entire U.S. inventory. The Air Force has also only allocated funding for ten EC-37B communications-jamming aircraft, which are set to replace 14 EC-130H platforms. These EC-130Hs were recently grounded for major engine defects. Much like the Navy’s planned EA-18G divestment, the number of funded EC-37Bs could have been smaller, but congressional pushback — and increased funding allocated in excess of the military’s requests — saved airframes. These two platforms represent the only offensive electronic warfare systems with software defined and open architecture capability in the U.S. inventory. This architecture allows hardware to be rapidly reprogrammed with new jammer techniques and to share those techniques across platforms without going back to the aircraft vendor for updates. These are key components in the near term to counter America’s adversaries at the pace of technological development.
The EA-18G and EC-37B, as capable as they are, are not a permanent solution for the Department of Defense’s electronic warfare needs. Due to the rapidly advancing air defense capabilities of America’s adversaries, these assets will eventually need to be replaced by more advanced capabilities. Even while moving to divest or shrink inventories of current capabilities, the services have not yet provided funding for the development of future offensive electronic warfare capabilities. This puts the development of any new capability at least a decade or more away and risks an unaddressed capability gap in the near future, which could prove disastrous in a future conflict with a near-peer adversary.
In a European war scenario involving Russia, the deployment of long-range surface-to-air missile systems to Kaliningrad and Belarus could hold American and allied air forces at a distance, while advanced electronic warfare systems could sever the communications and datalinks necessary to formulate a counteroffensive. Without its own ability to maneuver and fight in a contested electromagnetic spectrum to disrupt Russian integrated attacks, the United States risks ceding air superiority and the ability to support ground forces in an integrated multi-domain fashion. A defense of the Baltics or elsewhere on NATO’s eastern front could devolve into a prolonged ground battle with little support from the air domain, similar to the current situation in Ukraine.
In a Chinese scenario, the outlook is perhaps even more dire. If there were a conflict in the South China Sea, Chinese advanced passive radars using reflected energy from civilian radio signals could negate the advantages of stealth technology, while their advanced surface-to-air missiles could keep U.S. air assets at a distance at which they would be ineffective. Meanwhile, the Chinese military’s airborne offensive electronic warfare systems could wreak havoc on U.S. command and control. This Chinese system, however, is dependent upon its networked capability, the ability to share cueing and partial data around the larger system to develop a coherent air picture. The most effective counter to such a system is an offensive electronic warfare capability that can sever those links, the very type of capability that the Department of Defense is attempting to divest without a funded follow-on.
The Russians and Chinese have spent the better part of two decades developing defensive systems that can thwart traditional U.S. advantages in the electromagnetic spectrum. This new reality affects everything from how the military deploys and maintains combat forces to how all of those forces communicate and coordinate with one another in the spectrum. The joint force needs to align its research, development, testing, and fielding with that shared understanding. While this sounds intuitive, when given the choice to buy a system that improves a single platform’s defensive electromagnetic warfare suite or to invest in a system that can enhance the offensive capabilities of any platform it is loaded on and contribute to a broader collaborative network of electronic warfare, the Department of Defense should prioritize the latter. Until this distributed, collaborative electronic warfare capability is developed, however, the Navy should meet combatant-command demand and maintain sufficient numbers of the EA-18G, and the Air Force should do the same with the EC-37B. These are America’s current best airborne assets to fight in the electromagnetic spectrum and undermine its adversaries’ ability to maneuver there at will. Additionally, the joint force should get back to training in a fully contested environment by focusing on realistic training scenarios and investing in more high-end threat replicators to mimic the threats that the United States may face.
As other great powers push the envelope of capabilities in the electromagnetic spectrum, the U.S. military risks losing its edge. The ability to fight and maneuver in the spectrum should be something the military is organized, trained, and equipped to do as a vital mission set, not just because Congress forces the Department of Defense’s hand. The electromagnetic spectrum is a critical enabler to all other aspects of joint operations and especially those that occur within the air and space domains. Without concrete steps taken now or in the near future, the United States risks fighting at a serious disadvantage, or in fact quickly losing the war in the air.
Col. John Christianson is a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is an F-15E weapon systems officer and electronic warfare officer who has also flown the EA-6B and EA-18G electromagnetic warfare aircraft. Previously he served as the U.S. Air Force Weapons School electronic warfare officer and as a division chief in the Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Directorate. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.
Image: Photo courtesy of Col. Jeff Kassebaum, United States Air Force.