It isn’t easy to be nostalgic about the Cold War, but back then military planners had at least one advantage that they no longer enjoy today: everybody agreed on what the big threats were. They originated mostly in Russia, and they were really, really serious. So serious, in fact, that the survival of civilization depended on dealing with them effectively. Nowadays the threats are more diverse, they come at planners from every direction, and there’s no way of knowing which ones will be most pressing over the long run.
So maybe it isn’t surprising that experts disagree about which capabilities should get highest priority. But there are at least a few core principles that most planners can embrace, and one of them is that in the information age, if you can’t control the electromagnetic spectrum then you probably can’t win wars. Every facet of combat is permeated today by technology such as sensors, networks, navigation aids and smart bombs that depend on access to the electromagnetic spectrum in order to function.
Even terrorists depend on electronic technology to communicate with each other and trigger their bombs. Which is why the joint force spends a lot of time trying to monitor, jam or manipulate the frequencies on which the most common enemy devices operate. In big state-on-state conflicts, both sides try to dominate the spectrum, and the resulting rivalry is called “electronic warfare.” It isn’t quite the same thing as information warfare, but if you can shut down the enemy’s radars or scramble his communications, it produces similar benefits on the battlefield.
So being good at electronic warfare is important to the joint force. It protects our warfighters from improvised explosives and enables our aircraft to operate in contested air space. Unfortunately, the Navy is the only service that has given the mission proper priority since the Cold War ended. The Air Force thought it could substitute stealth for jammers in combating enemy air defenses, and was slow to grasp how new information technologies were empowering non-traditional adversaries. The Army and Marine Corps had unique requirements that never got funded at the rate needed to generate good solutions. Meanwhile, the Navy forged ahead on its own to develop a new jamming aircraft.
Fast-forward to the Obama Administration. The Navy’s solution to future electronic warfare needs, dubbed the EA-18G Growler, is ready to debut. The service plans to buy 88 of the planes, based on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, to field the ten squadrons its carrier air wings require. The Air Force has started and stopped two programs to provide its own aircraft with jamming in the future, and now has no clear plan. The Army has canceled the Aerial Common Sensor to localize battlefield emitters. And the Marine Corps plans to fly legacy jamming aircraft for another ten years, until it fields a nebulously defined alternative to the Growler.
The problem is that just because the joint force lacks a coherent plan for meeting future electronic warfare needs doesn’t mean our adversaries are in similar disarray. The Air Force is in especially deep trouble, since it has been depending on aged Navy aircraft for jamming support, and those planes are all due to be retired by 2013. Maybe it has some secret plan to deal with the emerging threat to its aircraft. If it doesn’t, though, then planners need to take a serious look at buying more Growlers, because right now all the planes the Navy plans to buy are dedicated to Navy missions.
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