In the two decades since the Cold War ended, the world has undergone a technological revolution. Every facet of commerce and culture has been reshaped by the growing ubiquity of digital sensors, processors and networks. We tend not to notice how dependent we are on these new technologies until we are deprived of their functions, and then their importance becomes all too clear. For instance, yesterday I paid the service department at a local General Motors dealership over a thousand dollars to fix two malfunctioning sensors in my SUV that are essential to its safe operation. That amount is dwarfed by the payments I have made to technicians in recent years to keep all the digital networks and appliances in my home operating correctly. Welcome to the information age.
America’s military faces many of the same challenges that consumers do in staying abreast of technological developments, because the information revolution has transformed warfare the same way it has transformed other facets of life. Megatons have given way to megabits as the driving measures of merit in military preparedness, a development that has enabled non-traditional actors to play a bigger role in modern warfare. Dominating the electromagnetic spectrum is even more important now than it used to be when our main concern was enemy radars, but the diversity of electronic challenges today makes the whole notion of dominance somewhat dated. There are just too many bad guys with access to too many new technologies.
But we have to try, because victory or defeat in future conflicts may well hang on who can make most effective use of the spectrum. Given that fact, it’s hard to understand why the joint force has waited so long to begin upgrading its airborne electronic jammers. Such jammers are essential to countering hostile sensors and communication nets, yet some components in the jamming pods carried on U.S. military planes date to the 1970s. It is unrealistic to expect Nixon-era technology can defeat items like terrorist cell phones that didn’t even exist when the original system specifications were drawn up. Even when the threat seems similar to what the Soviets might have employed — as in the case of air-defense radars — a closer look reveals huge advances in agility, sensitivity and survivability made possible by the advent of digital technology. We thought we could stay ahead of the game with innovations like stealth, but it turns out that infinitely expansible networks and unlimited processing power eventually trumps any passive solution.
So the joint force still needs its jammers. In fact, it needs much better jammers to deal with the diverse array of threats it will encounter in future conflicts. The U.S. Navy has figured that out, and is leading the effort to develop a “Next Generation Jammer” that will replace the pods on its existing electronic-warfare aircraft. Since the future system will have to be carried on a variety of different airframes, some of them unmanned, it can’t be another self-contained pod — it will need to be a modular, adaptable architecture that distributes antennas, power sources, transmitters and processors as needed within the available volume of host aircraft. The other services have barely begun to think through how they will update their electronic-warfare capabilities, which is why the Navy is likely to remain the lead service in developing and using jammers. But here’s the key point: we have to get going on developing better jammers, because if there’s a dimension of warfare where the meaning of military preparedness is changing fast, it’s on the electromagnetic spectrum.
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