When you consider how much money Americans spend on defense — about $4 trillion so far in this decade alone — it’s amazing what a poor job we do of maintaining our military arsenal. In the years since the cold war ended, the Navy’s fleet has shrunk by half to fewer than 300 ships, the Air Force’s planes have “matured” to twice the age of the commercial airline fleet, and the Army has largely abandoned the production of heavy armored vehicles. There’s a simple reason for all these signs of military decay: the threat went away. No peer adversary has taken the place of the Red Army or the Imperial Navy.
The decline of electronic warfare is harder to explain, because there the threat never went away — it got worse. Electronic warfare is the fight for control of the electromagnetic spectrum, the medium via which all of our communications and information systems operate. During the cold war, each military service nurtured a community of specialists adept at blocking or manipulating enemy transmissions while countering enemy efforts to do the same to us. They jammed radars, disrupted command links, confused sensors and in general made it difficult for adversaries to employ any electronic device.
When you’re really good at electronic warfare, your enemy is nearly helpless. He can’t see, he can’t hear, he can’t even turn on the lights. Electronic warfare is the reason why Syria’s military didn’t know it was under attack last year until Israeli bombs began exploding at its sole nuclear-weapons facility — even though the jets dropping the bombs had to transit Syrian air space to get to the target. Like cyber warfare, it’s the kind of warfighting skill that only a technologically advanced country can be really good at, so you’d think U.S. military planners would want to exploit it for maximum leverage.
Well, guess again. Aside from the U.S. Navy and a small band of dedicated congressmen called the Electronic Warfare Working Group, this arcane specialty has become an orphan in the budgeting process. The Air Force walked away from electronic warfare when it decided that stealthy aircraft could be invisible to any radar (it later learned that wasn’t entirely true). The Army aborted plans to build an “aerial common sensor” that could find hostile emitters on the battlefield, only to discover that insurgents in Iraq were using cell phones and electronic bomb detonators to great effect. And the Marines just stopped thinking about the subject.
The Navy held on, developing a replacement for the aging Prowler jamming plane called the Growler (a variant of the F/A-18 Super Hornet). Part of the reason was that naval aviators weren’t as impressed with stealth as their Air Force counterparts, and so they continued investing in other approaches to defending aircraft. The Army has now rediscovered electronic warfare as a result of setbacks in Iraq, and has sent soldiers to train with Navy specialists. But even the Navy has lagged in funding next-gen capabilities, which probably require unmanned aircraft that can get closer to hostile emitters.
Perhaps the time has come to put the Navy in charge of all joint electronic warfare activities. The other services don’t have their acts together, and the Navy is less stressed at the moment than the ground forces. That could change, but the problem right now is that a vital skill is being neglected, and the Navy may be the only service with enough expertise and imagination to keep it alive.
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