Battles for electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) will be the first of any future war. In 2014, Russia disconnected Ukrainian forces in Crimea from their command-and-control network, confirming Russia’s electromagnetic warfare capabilities and that the United States is no longer the only country capable of highly effective non-kinetic spectrum operations.1 Meanwhile, Chinese information operations and cyber units have fully integrated electronic warfare to operate across the electromagnetic spectrum, known in Chinese military doctrine as the “5th battlefield.”2 Today, the United States is neither adequately prepared nor sufficiently armed to dominate the electromagnetic battlefield.
The EMS is the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves, microwaves, gamma, x-ray, and infrared. The EMS is a maneuver space that transcends all operational domains—air, space, land, sea, and cyber. Virtually every technology used today, from cellular to Wi-Fi to advanced military weaponry, needs to access and exploit the EMS. U.S. defense depends on the ability to employ and exploit the EMS, such as getting directions from a global positioning system, using radar to land a plane, flying a drone, finding and detonating an improvised explosive device, or simply communicating with a forward-operating base.
Competition in the spectrum is a primary security threat. Users of the spectrum have grown substantially in the past two decades, as availability of items such as $25 Chinese-made jammers online give increasing accessibility of EMS capabilities and tools to more non-state and individual threat actors.3 State actors, however, present the greatest challenges. Russia has been studying and developing EMS tactics for decades. In November 2015, Russia deployed its S-400 air defense system after its fighter jet was shot down by Turkey over the Syrian border. The system can guide missiles to targets nearly 250 miles away. This year, a leading Russian electronic warfare company began testing a new ground-based jamming system to be used with advanced air defense systems, including the S-400. Designed to disrupt air operations, the system is capable of severing crucial data-links that enable worldwide military operations.4
Confronting the threat requires that national-security planning focus on the importance of the EMS. Among the key elements of the new Third Offset Strategy is EMS maneuverability, to which the Navy brings the development of unmanned underwater vehicles, cyber capabilities, and electronic-warfare applications. The Pentagon is working a new policy to officially recognize the EMS as a warfare domain on par with land, sea, air, space, and (but separate from) cyberspace. As Thomas Taylor, deputy director for policy, technology and EMS operations for the Pentagon, put it, “we need to evolve to one capability where we’re managing the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain . . . in order to generate EMS superiority.”5
These are steps in the right direction, but some warn that the United States is still a few steps behind. Experts have cautioned that “DOD’s lack of operational concepts that describe new [electromagnetic system] war-fighting methods and capabilities may be the most significant barrier to a shift into the competitive regime.”6 This absence of operational concepts not only prevents the United States from taking advantage of the current and next generation of electronic warfare technologies, but also from acquiring fairly developed technologies.
Recognizing these capability and conceptual gaps, the U.S. Navy is training for an increasingly contested electromagnetic environment. Some leaders have pushed the concept of “distributed lethality” to deceive, target, and destroy the enemy. Surface combatants, for example, would be moved from escort duties into their own small surface action groups that would force adversaries to track every missile-armed warship in the fleet. Distributed lethality also embraces electronic deception and operating under emissions control (EMCON).
While the Navy has taken the lead in understanding the EMS and in preparing for electromagnetic maneuver warfare, the United States faces stiff competition in the spectrum. Chinese and Russian investments in EMS have paid off. Without persistent senior leadership and attaching an even higher priority to EMS dominance, the United States could lose domination of the electromagnetic spectrum for good.
2. Joshua Phillip, “Chinese Military Gets Trained on Electronic Warfare,” Epoch Times, 18 October 2013, www.theepochtimes.com/n3/322299-chinese-military-gets-trained-on-electronic-warfare/.
3. Joe Gould, “Guided-Bomb Makers Anticipate GPS Jammers,” Defense News, 1 June 2015, www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/2015/05/31/guided-bomb-makers-gps-jammers-battlefield-spoof-munitions-laser-jdam/28117951/.
4. Dave Majumdar, “How Russia’s Edge in Electronic Warfare Could ‘Ground’ the U.S. Air Force,” National Interest, 26 April 2016, www.nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-russias-edge-electronic-warfare-could-ground-the-us-air-15932.
5. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “DoD CIO Says Spectrum May Become Warfighting Domain,” Breaking Defense, 9 December 2015, www.breakingdefense.com/2015/12/dod-cio-says-spectrum-may-become-warfighting-domain/.
6. Patrick Tucker, “A Glimpse at Tomorrow’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Weapons,” Defense One, 2 December 2015, www.defenseone.com/technology/2015/12/glimpse-tomorrows-electromagnetic-spectrum-weapons/124114/.