Pentagon Study Signals Growing Awareness Of “Non-Kinetic” Threats & Opportunities

InsideDefense.com reported last week that Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall has directed a Defense Science Board study of future electronic-warfare challenges and opportunities. Electronic warfare (or EW) is the use of radio-frequency signals to achieve military effects. It can be as gross as an electromagnetic pulse that shuts down every unprotected electronic system over hundreds of square miles, or as limited as a tailored jamming transmission that prevents improvised explosive devices from detonating along a particular road. Either way, EW as it exists today reflects the gradual migration of the military away from traditional explosive methods of waging war, to more subtle, “non-kinetic” kill mechanisms.

Military forces have been using radio-frequency signals for a century to communicate on the battlefield. Several decades after the advent of radio, scientists began to realize that such signals could also be used to detect distant objects, to generate images, and to deny enemies access to the lower ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum. That sparked a series of measure-countermeasure rivalries for control of the spectrum that Secretary Kendall’s memo describes as cycles — essentially electronic versions of the traditional offense-defense cycle by which military technology advances. The reason Kendall wants the Defense Science Board to investigate the future electronic environment for military operations is to assure that when the next measure-countermeasure cycle unfolds, America retains its lead in this exotic form of warfare.

The state of the art today in electronic warfare is a version of Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter modified for electronic warfare. Designated the EA-18G Growler, it is by far the most sophisticated jamming aircraft in the world, designed to replace the carrier-based EA-6B Prowler that traces its origins to the 1960s (Prowlers are also operated from land bases). The U.S. Navy, which leads EW innovation globally, is currently conducting a competition to replace the Vietnam-era jamming pods carried on both Prowlers and Growlers with a more agile, powerful system that can counter a wider range of threats. A Northrop Grumman-Exelis team is competing against BAE Systems and Raytheon for the contract to provide the next-generation jammer. The winner will probably dominate the domestic EW business for decades to come.

But electronic warfare is changing as other approaches to accomplishing non-kinetic kill appear. For instance, cyber warfare — the use of computer code and operations to accomplish military objectives — has become a big area of innovation as the U.S. and other nations maneuver to exploit each others’ networks. Secretary Kendall’s memo explicitly requests the Defense Science Board to investigate ways in which EW, cyber and more traditional kinetic weapons might be combined to fashion effective military campaigns. However, the seeming similarity between electronic warfare and cyber warfare breaks down under close scrutiny, with the two approaches turning out to share little more than their need for access to the electromagnetic spectrum. Hopefully, the Defense Science Board’s summer study can clarify what the connection is between these two areas of military innovation, since both are likely to play a growing role in future conflicts.