The U.S Navy is the most advanced in the world today, but our weaknesses in the electromagnetic spectrum bear considering. While it is important to stay on the leading edge of technological development, the Navy can maintain its advantage by reimplementing some tried and true tactics, techniques, and procedures that largely have been forgotten since the Cold War. The U.S. Sixth Fleet, through a series of electromagnetic maneuver warfare (EMW) exercises called Silent Echo, is attempting to do just that.
EMW seeks to strengthen our Navy’s resiliency by improving how we operate in the electromagnetic spectrum while simultaneously countering our adversaries’ use of the spectrum. EMW includes, but is not limited to, exercising alternative communications paths, developing jam-resistant technologies, and learning how to maneuver, communicate, and fight with ease throughout the EMS. As retired Navy Captain Robert Rubel noted in the November 2015 Proceedings article “Infighting: A Needed Warfighting Skill,” we “must also practice at sea to learn the best tactics—for example, survival by concealment and nearly silent operations instead of a difficult ever-ready defense.” Doing this effectively will enable the force to remain unlocated or located but untargeted.
In the Sixth Fleet area of operations, EMW is developed, tested, and refined through Commander Task Force 65’s Silent Echo series of exercises. The first aim of Silent Echo is to limit our ships’ probability of detection by adversaries. We seek to deny the enemy information about our units’ patterns and locations.
The Aegis combat system has proven to be reliable and capable in the air defense and ballistic missile defense roles for more than 30 years. The lack of a peer competitor since the end of the Cold War, however, has led to some complacency in how our ships operate. For years, we have paid little regard to their electromagnetic signatures. Our ability to detect threats at long range and our layered defenses gave rise to a sense of security that even if an adversary knew where a U.S. Navy ship was, it could not strike it effectively. As a result, emissions control measures (EMCON) have long been skills to be demonstrated during certification yet rarely employed during deployments.
Two factors have led to this complacency. The first is the increased demand for information. Constant, large-bandwidth connectivity has extended our ability to watch near-real-time full-motion video from thousands of miles away. Operational- and strategic-level commanders are able to place themselves in the center of unit-level decision-making. As a result, unit commanders are left with little room to act without having to consult with higher authority. Attempts to silence our ships’ emissions (and their transmission of information) are met with resistance. We have become so accustomed to constant communications that when the faucet is shut off, leaders feel uneasy.
The second major factor is the resurgence of near-peer adversaries. Given adversary advances in antiship weapons, our ships no longer have the luxury of steaming wherever they want without regard for who may observe them. In the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Fleet areas today, the threats are real and we must be able to operate stealthily.
Unit commanders must be aware of their ships’ emissions at all times and restrict them to those most necessary. Rather than ask what systems to turn off, our ships’ crews should be conditioned to ask what systems must be turned on to accomplish a mission. Extended periods of EMCON should not be considered an inconvenience—they should be normal.
This paradigm change has effects at the operational and strategic levels. If ships consistently operate in EMCON, the chain of command cannot micromanage them 24/7. Robust planning and coordination must be done in advance in case situations escalate or develop while in EMCON. Fleet commanders must communicate clearly their intent in advance of EMCON, and then have faith that unit commanders will execute their guidance. In turn, unit commanders must make sound decisions based on commander’s intent. To integrate EMW successfully into all operations, our culture must change. Sixth Fleet’s Silent Echo exercises are part of that culture change as they teach ships to integrate EMCON into transits, exercises, and operations, making EMW part of normal operations.
The second aim of Silent Echo is to increase electromagnetic agility. This is a more difficult challenge and involves denying our adversaries the ability to observe and predict our behavior and patterns. Many of our systems operate on single frequencies. Regularly used communications channels rarely change frequency. While encrypting these communications protects their content, our adversaries still can exploit communications externals to locate our ships and glean information about our operations and intent. Through Silent Echo, we learn to operate comfortably in a communications-denied or -degraded environment. We exercise alternative, jam-resistant, and resilient communications paths rather than relying on what works in an uncontested environment. If alternatives are not developed, the denial of our established and clearly observed communication paths in wartime has the potential to be our downfall.
Implementing EMW will not be without challenges, and Silent Echo is just a piece of fleet-wide efforts. Even when unit commanders fully understand their commander’s intent, there still will be times when they must communicate. In addition, successful joint and coalition operations require a great deal of coordination and synchronization. Extended periods of EMCON can make coordination difficult. Some high-profile missions, such as ballistic missile defense, also require constant communications. Some of these missions simply cannot be accomplished in total EMCON.
The U.S. Navy no longer has the luxury of operating as it has for the past 25 years—namely, loudly and unafraid. We must have a healthy respect for our adversaries, and we must adapt to the changing environment. In Sixth Fleet, we recognize proficiency in electromagnetic warfare is an operational necessity. Silent Echo exercises aim to ensure the fleet can conduct the full range of operations regardless of adversary attempts to deny our use of the spectrum.
Lieutenant Hoyt is a surface warfare officer currently assigned to Commander Task Force 65/Destroyer Squadron 60 in Naples, Italy, as the staff electromagnetic warfare officer. Previously he served on board the USS Essex (LHD-2).