Leading the Waveform: Evolving Spectrum Leadership for Future Wars

By: Robert “STAN” Smith
Approximate reading time: 11 minutes

The US military falls short in preparing for future conflicts because the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is not recognized as a domain. Declaring the EMS a domain reverses the current trend by providing a common conceptual framework with other domains, highlighting the need to develop domain expertise, and encouraging creative tactics development inspired by existing concepts. Instead, the EMS is treated as a utility for warfare in air, land, maritime, space, and cognitive domains. This dilutes expertise in various EMS operations (EMSO) fields while allowing peer adversaries like Russia and China to gain precious ground. The US must elevate its treatment of EMS to the same level as air, land, maritime and space domains to properly grow its experts, from tactical to senior levels, and to develop multi-domain solutions that hold our adversaries at risk.

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Figure 1: Soldiers surveying the EMS

The Department of Defense (DoD) does not provide the emphasis, and subsequently the resources, required to maintain freedom of action in the EMS because the domain is misunderstood to be simply an enabler. The difference is highlighted in each of the US military services’ missions which speak to domain-based operations to an extent, though none directly reference the EMS. The Navy seeks to maintain “freedom of the seas,” the Army supports “land dominance,” and the Marine Corps is tasked to “fight on land, sea, and air.” The EMS domain represents a critical connection for operations across the air, land, sea, and space but remains a silent partner in the service mission statements. The only EMSO experts that can point to their service’s mission for incorporation are the Air Force’s cyberspace operations officers, who “fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace.” Those executing EMSO in and through space and traditional electronic warfare officers (EWOs) have their effects grouped in with associated (but distinctly different) domains. By assuming EMS effects fall under air, maritime, or even space domains, the services mischaracterize the EMS as a utility to other physics-based environments and inhibit the growth of experts for domain operations. Instead, the services must apply a common definition of domain that enables an accurate understanding and better education in EMS as a domain.

A domain is a critical macro maneuver space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission. This definition provides clear guidance that can be used to compare and contrast domains to one another. It allows those unfamiliar with the EMS to approach the domain as they would the air, land, or maritime domains. For example, an officer in a planning cell may easily apply maneuver in the air domain by assigning a flight of F-15C aircraft to establish localized air superiority. How does the same planner direct maneuver in the EMS in order to gain EMS superiority, and to support what objective? The flight of F-15Cs may have difficulty in establishing air superiority if the pilots are unable to communicate with an air battle manager or use on-board radar due to jamming. The flight may be forced to make rapid decisions within the formation based on compromised data, leading to failure. Superiority in the EMS is vital to supporting the F-15C flights’ air superiority mission and spectrum maneuver must be integrated into a comprehensive multi-domain plan. True multi-domain operations require freedom of action in the EMS for not only the tactical-level F-15Cs’ organic capabilities, but also the tactical- to operational-level command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities that multiply their combat power. The F-15C pilots’ scheme of maneuver relies on EMS freedom of action. While the F-15C pilot requires some competence in EMS maneuver, a greater level of fidelity and expertise is required for integrated operations planning. In the same way that the military needs experts in fighter combat, the military needs experts in EMSO.

Just as experts in the air domain have backgrounds in several different types of missions, EMSO experts are similarly diverse. The services need EMSO expertise to effectively direct integration and solve emerging problems related to the unique EMS domain. Airborne electronic warfare support (ES) crews provide esoteric, but tactically relevant, detail in signal characteristics while electronic attack (EA) crews have intimate knowledge of jam-to-signal ratio and waveforms, but both share foundational EMSO knowledge. Cyberspace operations officers have similar diversity across offensive, defensive, and DoD Information Network (DoDIN) operations. EWOs and cyberspace operations officers are experts in aspects of EMSO, though they generally differ between free space and wired network expertise respectively. Both, along with space operations officers, are irreplaceable in planning multi-domain operations and must grow as leaders. Services must have a stable of experts to call on to solve problems, instruct the joint force in domain maneuver, and lead tactics development.

These operators begin their EW careers as students with the goal of becoming tactical experts in the specific platform they are assigned. Once an operator becomes an expert of their own EMSO system, their service should provide the operator additional training to integrate with dissimilar EMSO capabilities to become more fluent in EMS domain-specific support, followed by support to different domains. In order to properly grow EMSO experts, the services must educate operators with tiered training levels: major weapons system, support to joint EMSO, and support to multi-domain operations. This training is dedicated to build expertise methodically, allowing the services to retain EMSO experts within airborne, space, and cyberspace communities while simultaneously developing integration leaders. Doctrine that consolidates airborne, space, and cyberspace EMSO under one domain promotes the comprehensive growth that US services require to establish battlefield EMS superiority in future conflicts. These experts can then apply maneuver concepts from other domains to create innovative tactics and achieve objectives in the EMS.

The EMS is ripe for creative tactics development that are loosely based on existing concepts from air, land, and maritime domains, we only need to recognize that the EMS is more than simply a utility for the other domains. In fact, comparing the EMS to the air domain makes the spectrum much more approachable in a conceptual sense. Consider fighter combat again, where the energy of an aircraft directly contributes to maneuverability and therefore success in a dogfight. This is the foundation of Col John Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theory.

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Figure 2: Example of E-M diagram

Each aircraft type excels in specific areas of its respective flight envelope while similarly suffering from poor performance in other areas. Fighter pilots are trained to contrast the energy-maneuverability of their own aircraft with that of an adversary’s flight envelope. In this comparison, the pilot can identify which flight regimes benefit their aircraft while simultaneously degrading the performance of the adversary; a state of maneuver where the pilot holds distinct advantage. Maneuver within the EMS can use the same concept to hold the adversary at a disadvantage. For example, an EWO planning an operation with respect to the EMS maps out the frequency bands available for friendly use, then overlays the adversary’s known capability to deny, degrade, or disrupt frequencies. Gaps in adversary capability equate to EMS envelopes where friendly operations hold advantage. The EMSO planner then applies the principle of Boyd’s concept by maneuvering critical communications to gaps in adversary coverage based on a comparison of capabilities, essentially avoiding the adversary’s fires altogether.

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Figure 3: Leyer-3 EW system mounted on Orlan-10 UAV

Similarly, these capabilities can also be depicted geographically, in a limited fashion, with “bug splats” of nominal transmitter power for both C4ISR and electronic attack capabilities. Imagine a map of assessed adversary GPS jammer types and locations, a simplified EMS order of battle. These transmitters have a geographic “reach” related to their effective radiated power. EMSO planners can estimate the effective range of the jammer using standard signal-to-noise ratio equations applied to specific friendly receivers. This range is then depicted much like a topographic map, with contours outlining estimated power levels by decibel that units can use to maneuver around areas of expected jamming. Land maneuver units and aircrew alike may benefit from visually identifying key EMS nodes and weaknesses to appropriately exploit or avoid. A vital note, though: any directional, spoofing, or variable-power capability of the jammer, or movement of the system itself, invalidates the mission-planned model. The adversary’s own tactics, deception, or simply the fog of war impacts EMSO just the same as other domains. Planners with EMS expertise must identify these risks and effectively manage expectations for the joint force in a multi-domain operation. These EMSO experts must then be employed in combat to recognize the changing environment and effectively adapt operations in real-time. While this mission-planning modeling can be useful in illustrating the EMS domain’s effects on multi-domain maneuver, it can impose additional risk through misrepresentation without foundational EMSO knowledge.

With the appropriate tools and knowledge, crews can execute maneuver in air, land, maritime, or space domains while simultaneously accounting for maneuver in the EMS. Effective multi-domain planning enables aircrew, for example, to adjust communications and air maneuver plans to establish a position of superiority over the adversary. This concept of maneuver is enabled by understanding that the EMS is a domain rather than simply a utility for other domains. Boyd’s E-M theory describes how EMS tactical maneuver can be better understood within the known context of air domain maneuver. But like the air domain application, the E-M theory basically applies to one-on-one tactical engagements. To better understand larger, operational-level EMS engagements, another Boyd-related theory may be translated across domain boundaries. What theory?

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1 Warfighting provides a philosophical discussion that compares attrition warfare to maneuver warfare and can be directly applied to EMSO. The ultimate goal of war in MCDP 1 is to cause systemic disruption to the enemy, which leads to panic, paralysis, and defeat. There is a clear parallel to warfare in the EMS domain, as effects like communications jamming seek to disrupt an adversary’s information exchange as well as their initiative. Maneuver warfare concentrates forces and fires at decisive points or critical adversary vulnerabilities, in comparison to the cumulative destruction of adversary forces associated with attrition warfare. Similarly, nodal analysis of an adversary’s C4ISR network is vital to identifying key weaknesses associated with centers of gravity, which then become discrete targets of offensive cyber, space, or electronic warfare operations. A plan to jam every known frequency for the duration of a battle—a characteristic of attrition warfare—is destined to fail. Instead, EMSO officers, applying the philosophy of maneuver warfare, direct disruption of key adversary frequencies or capabilities to create systemic failures throughout an adversary’s network. A jammed radio will not destroy an adversary aircraft, but the resulting confusion and panic of a well-timed effect as part of an integrated plan can initiate cascading failures. Both the E-M theory and philosophy of maneuver warfare are widely known and applied to other domains. By promoting the EMS as a domain, it is a small logical leap to begin applying these concepts and developing new tactics with helpful context.

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Figure 4: PATRIOT missiles intercepting target

The US needs structured EMSO training and new tactics development to counter significant gains in the EMS by peer adversaries like Russia and China. When Chinese military authors Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote Unrestricted Warfare in 1999, they described the global links required in Desert Storm to intercept SCUD ballistic missiles:  signals travelling from satellite to Australian ground station to Cheyenne Mountain to Riyadh, all in the span of seconds and entirely reliant on the EMS. The significance becomes clear as the authors describe a future where information constitutes a revolution in weaponry.  The PATRIOT intercepting a SCUD is simply the result of a global information weapon existing in the EMS. Stating “there is nothing in the world today that cannot be a weapon,” Liang and Xiangsui promote multi-domain operational concepts to achieve military objectives. Chinese tacticians study the critical linkages across both wired and free space networks with the likely goal of detecting exploitable vulnerabilities. If an adversary’s goal is to mitigate PATRIOT missile batteries, attacking the battery itself may be unnecessary if infrastructure it relies upon is disrupted in the EMS. A capable adversary may deny EMS superiority to US units within supposedly friendly territory with network attacks. Similarly, adversaries can deny US forces EMS superiority in their target area. For instance, the Russian army has incorporated EW companies in motorized rifle brigades to provide organic ES and EA capabilities. The company’s automated systems find, track, and engage targets in the EMS with little to no operator input, denying a target’s use of the spectrum while maintaining freedom of action for the rifle brigade. Organic EW companies support land domain objectives through seamless integration of EMS domain maneuver. Our adversaries have recognized the importance of the EMS, as well as the US’s overreliance on EMS-dependent systems, and continue to re-organize and equip their forces to gain superiority in the domain. The DoD must invest the resources required to compete in the EMS as a domain.

The US has significant ground to cover to compete against peer competitors in the EMS once again, ground that can be covered by recognizing the EMS as a domain. Establishing the EMS as a domain provides a common set of definitions with which to describe and understand spectrum operations better. The DoD can also then highlight and continue to build a cadre of domain experts in the same fashion as air, sea, and land maneuver experts. These experts support varying niches within the EMS, such as space operations officers, cyber operations officers, and electronic warfare officers, but all work toward shared objectives to maintain freedom of action within the EMS while denying it to the adversary. By bringing all services to view the EMS as a domain, these experts can then build and teach new tactics, techniques, and procedures to gain EMS superiority through spectrum maneuver based on common foundational knowledge. By treating the EMS as a simple utility to the other domains, the US risks falling further behind in developing new capabilities. Adversaries like Russia and China seek to control the EMS and isolate US units from C4ISR capabilities during future conflicts. Without EMS superiority, the US risks defeat against peer threats.

Maj Robert “STAN” Smith is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is an RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT Electronic Warfare Officer with multiple deployments to US Central Command and European Command. He can be found on Twitter as @RJStan_ or by email at RJStan99@gmail.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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