Every military correspondent in America seems to be writing a story about how air warfare has changed since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It’s a pretty compelling story. Thanks to weapons like the stealthy B-2 bomber and satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, bombing has become more lethal, more precise, more affordable, and even more humane. But many reporters are missing the most revolutionary feature of the Air Force’s emerging approach to air warfare. A growing number of targets are being killed without using munitions at all.
The new approach uses bursts of photons — the basic units of electromagnetic energy — to disrupt or destroy an adversary’s electronic systems. Without those systems (sensors, computers, communications links and so on) the enemy is rendered blind, mute and helpless. It’s a soft-kill approach to waging war that is the precise opposite of the carpet bombing conducted in past wars, and yet it may actually be far more effective at quickly defeating a foe.
There are three approaches to “photonic” warfare, and all may be on display in a campaign against Iraq. The best known is electronic warfare, which used to be called jamming. Electronic warfare employs airborne emitters like the EA-6B Prowler to overwhelm enemy radar and wireless communications with electronic “noise” that makes receivers useless. The latest electronic-warfare systems don’t just use brute strength to jam the airwaves, they precisely identify and localize enemy emitters for suppression or manipulation. Thus, enemy radars get false indications of where targets are, even as friendly pilots employ a panoply of sensors, communications and navigation aids with minimum interference.
A second form of photonic warfare is information operations, a grab-bag of arcane tricks for denying enemies the information needed to wage war effectively. In its grossest form, information operations may consist of no more than cutting off the supply of electricity to computers, as the military did in Desert Storm by dropping carbon filaments on power lines to short them out. But increasingly, info ops means the skillful use of specialized planes like the EC-130 Compass Call and RC-135 Rivet Joint to confuse or manipulate enemy information systems. Iraqi systems are not well shielded against sophisticated hackers and viruses, so an early collapse of Saddam’s command network is all but certain.
Finally, there is the most secret facet of photonic warfare: directed energy. The Air Force Research Laboratory and other government labs have for some time been working on radio-frequency weapons that can penetrate enemy electronics to erase memories, upset software, and even burnout components. These weapons are sometimes referred to as “high-power microwaves,” microwaves being the highest-frequency radio waves. The devices in the U.S. arsenal probably function at both microwave and lower frequencies in order to couple effectively with computers and radios operating below microwave frequencies.
If the Air Force is equipping planes with directed-energy weapons, then a revolution really is at hand and Saddam Hussein could be its first casualty. Even if the revolution is delayed, it is clear control of the electromagnetic spectrum has become as important as command of the air.
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