Opinion: U.S. Must Win The Battle For The Electromagnetic Spectrum

fighter jet at sunset
Credit: L3Harris Technologies

We have all seen the grim images of tanks rolling through muddy fields and buildings reduced to rubble by missile strikes. However, some of the most crucial battles taking place in Ukraine are invisible to the naked eye. In recent months, the Russian military has stepped up its use of the electromagnetic spectrum, executing advanced electronic warfare tactics to disrupt, deny and/or degrade Ukrainian drones and other systems. Russia has demonstrated an ability to intercept and decrypt tactical communications in real time—capabilities that Ukrainian military leaders say are slowing their counteroffensive.

U.S. Air Force practitioners of electronic warfare (EW) are in a sense operating with one eye blindfolded. In today’s environment, they are relying on outdated information and are hamstrung by slow processes and systems that may fail to take advantage of all available information sources across the electromagnetic operating environment. They lack an integrated architecture connecting all echelons—from distributed jammers to edge nodes to U.S.-based processing centers—that would enable them to analyze, reprogram and command and control (C2) disaggregated electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO) assets effectively at the speed of need.

Make no mistake: If the U.S. loses the fight over control of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), it loses the fight in all other domains. To ensure dominance in future conflicts, the U.S. Defense Department must significantly accelerate investments in building out EMSO capabilities. By modernizing an EMSO data architecture and taking full advantage of widely employed commercial technologies, we can give our warfighters a critical edge to outsmart and outmaneuver adversaries.

The Air Force has made data the centerpiece of its innovation agenda, with plans to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and robust, cloud-to-edge networks in order to dramatically shorten the time it takes to deliver mission-critical data to warfighters as part of an improved electronic warfare integrated reprogramming process. This approach would enable real-time electromagnetic battle management of distributed offensive and defensive EMS effects in support of long-range Air Force kill chains.

Incremental improvements will not get the U.S. military where it needs to go in the time frame required. A major shift must occur to move from a platform-centric EW approach to a data-centric, enterprise-wide construct comprised of smaller, smarter and connected EW systems that are decentralized across the battlespace.

Many of the technologies underlying this new approach are already used in the commercial world. Today’s warfighter is familiar with distributed smart sensors, onboard analytics, integrated communications, AI, machine learning, cloud computing and other technologies at the heart of our mobile society. To achieve future EMS dominance, these same technologies and concepts must apply to EMSO and EW integrated reprogramming. Here’s how:

Leverage a cloud-connected EMSO data-sharing architecture. A cloud-connected data architecture provides a flexible, scalable and cost-effective foundation for many of the Air Force priorities, including the ability to integrate software from a “marketplace” of open applications with no vendor lock.

Deploy an advanced edge-processing node. An enterprise node would consolidate critical EW enablers into a single “roll-on/-roll-off” device to bring advanced, open standards processing, databases and applications to the combat edge.

Harness the power of AI and machine learning. Integration of AI and machine learning algorithms into the edge-processing node enables rapid identification and classification of unknown threat signals and assists with C2 through AI-informed EMSO development in real time.

The future is now. To invert the adversary’s cost curve, industry must deliver solutions that use data as a weapon. Establishing a resilient, cloud-to-edge architecture that supports dynamic reprogramming and electromagnetic battle management is a vital path toward weaponizing EW data and achieving overmatch.

U.S. military leadership must retain the strategic vision and willpower to invest in these capabilities while establishing an acquisition framework that enables industry and academia to contribute to enterprise-wide solutions. Furthermore, the Air Force must have confidence that these rapidly developed technologies will harness data in unprecedented ways that inform how it operates and helps it win in future threat environments.

U.S. adversaries have studied the EMSO playbook for decades. They are using widely available technologies to field more advanced systems. It is time for the U.S. to do the same. After all, the battlespace may be invisible, but it holds the key to mission success across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Most important: Spectrum dominance increases the chances of bringing soldiers, sailors and airmen home safely. And that is a goal worth pursuing.

Paul De Lia is the director of Electronic Warfare Strategy Development at L3Harris.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.