Cognitive Electronic Warfare: A Move Towards EMS Maneuver Warfare

By John G. Casey
Approximate reading time: 9 minutes

Excerpt: In multi-domain operations (MDO), control of the electromagnetic spectrum is of paramount importance. By leveraging machine learning technologies coupled to advanced Electronic Warfare techniques, a key first step will be taken in enabling maneuver warfare within the spectrum.

Historically, military leaders planned battles based on maneuvering forces around a battlefield, marching armies in formations to gain a position of advantage over the enemy. The battlefield today is often spoken in terms of domains such as land, air, maritime, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Strategists are now exploring the “continuum of domains” and how these are interlinked in multi-domain operations. Permeating all other domains, the EMS is a foundational domain and enabler of operations in every other domain. With no regard for the sovereignty of any government or military, the EMS provides equitable access to anyone with the means to manipulate it.

Since the invention of the first radio transmitter, militaries have attempted to exploit the EMS to dominate another domain. During the Battle of Britain, early radars were used to locate and range Nazi aircraft as they raced across the French countryside and the English Channel towards the British coast. The use of radar allowed Royal Air Force Fighter Command to respond to incoming attacks and use its pilots and aircraft to the best possible effect. The warning provided from the EMS domain gave Britain the time necessary to mount an effective defense from the air and land domains. The US is now entering an era where EMS superiority will need to be gained and maintained as an integral part of a multi-domain operation – the age of EMS maneuver warfare. Unrestricted EMS freedom of maneuver is vital to militaries and societies around the world. It underpins modern life with high-speed access to the internet, driving directions, or rideshare. For the military, the EMS enables precision munitions, remotely piloted aircraft, adaptive logistics, modern radars, communications, and an untold number of other applications. Electronic Warfare (EW) needs to evolve at the speed of maneuver adding complexity to the EMS terrain. In the last 20 years, the concept of EMS as a domain matured and became a ubiquitous, though mostly ignored, part of modern life.

The Contested EMS Domain

In the last two decades, the US advantage in the EMS domain faltered due to years of austere budgets resulting in a stagnation of EW systems development. The 17 years of operating in a highly permissive environment inculcated a lack of EMS mindfulness in weapon system development and operational planning. Adversaries, studying how the US fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, developed doctrine and weapons to counter the asymmetric advantages in the EMS domain. The US stands now at an EW disadvantage. Peer competitors have modernized their militaries and are directly challenging freedom of maneuver in every domain, including the EMS. In 2014, the Chinese began building man-made islands in the South China Sea and have since weaponized these islands with long-range detection and missile systems, specifically designed to counter US technological advantages, as a part of their Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy.  Since 2009, Russia has modernized 80-90 percent of its EW units and, like China, has developed and upgraded a robust A2AD complex spreading over Eastern Europe. A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report states that the DoD needs at least a decade to close the gap with peer militaries.

Throughout the Cold War, military and political leaders were desperate to understand what the Soviet Union was doing on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Aircraft packed with electronic gear, such as the RB-29 and the RB-47, would fly “ferret” missions to locate enemy radar stations and missile batteries. In the event of war, the US would use this information to jam, destroy, or evade radar to strike Soviet targets. The information accumulated from these missions would be used by analysts to update order of battle, EW profiles, radar warning receivers, self-protection systems, and offensive jammers. These methods worked well in the past as adversary weapon systems developed along predictable paths using well-understood industrial processes. With the advent of software-defined radios, emitters can theoretically employ unlimited permutations of unique signal characteristics. These permutations will confound legacy EW systems as they adapt to capabilities far faster than new methods can be created. Machine learning technology could enable EW systems to identify, exploit, and modulate faster than the adversary can adapt. Through rapid and diverse EW assaults across multiple apertures, friendly forces can break an adversary’s hold of the EMS terrain.

Joint doctrine highlights the importance of gaining and maintaining EMS superiority which, like air superiority, is a key requirement for joint operations. Joint publication (JP) 3-13.1 Electronic Warfare defines EMS superiority as the degree of dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum that permits the conduct of operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference while affecting an adversary’s ability to do the same. To gain spectrum superiority in a highly contested environment, forces need to maneuver within the EMS domain –employing electronic attack (EA), electronic protection (EP), and electronic warfare support (ES) to obtain a position of advantage over the enemy. As one begins to look at the EMS, not just a medium of transmission but as actual terrain to be seized and consolidated, thoughts about warfare on the spectrum must also evolve. Forces must now look at operations within the spectrum domain as maneuver warfare. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 best defines maneuver warfare as “a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.” The EMS domain, like all other domains, has unique features and characteristics which can be exploited to gain a position of advantage over the enemy. To gain EMS superiority, a form of maneuver warfare must be employed to apply rapid, focused, and unanticipated actions to shatter the adversaries hold on the spectrum.

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Cognitive Electronic Warfare

The concept of cognitive EW is not new, but advances in machine learning offer a renewed opportunity to adapt to a highly contested spectrum. Everything from cosmic radiation to smartphones modify a unique EMS environment. Cognitive EW aims to sense, characterize, and exploit the EMS by teaming exquisite sensors and machine learning toolkits. Using cognitive EW tools, warfighters would be able to observe the EMS threat, orient for the spectrum, employ multi-domain combined arms, and rapidly consolidate gains.

Today’s EW systems are designed to operate in a known or anticipated EMS domain. In planning for a known or anticipated EMS requires a foundational characteristics library of radars, emitters, and other transmitters of a nation. This foundational library, the EW reprogramming cycle, of the EMS domain is created by scouring thousands of hours of the collection looking for every known, unknown, new, and unusual emitter that exists. With candidates flagged engineers and analysts conduct a form of EW forensics piecing together collections to understand what is happening at the source from what was collected. This process is labor intensive with results taking months to complete even for the most benign signal. Out of this process an electronic order of battle (EOB) is created for all threat radars that are known or suspected to exist within that nation. As weapons proliferate and new ones are fielded updates to EOB, sensor, and jammer profiles need to be updated. This assembly line-based process has been the cornerstone of the EW enterprise for generations. But as peer nations modernize their IADS with new adaptive radars this forensic based process will not be robust enough to keep up with the rate of change of modern digital systems.

A fully reactive detection and counter-measure development is the holy grail of cognitive EW the initial steps will allow for a more reactive and proactive development of EW profiles. In the near term, proven EW platforms within the land, maritime, air, and space domains would host cognitive EW capabilities as part of their detection and identification suite. Onboard these platforms organically collected and off-board feeds would provide spectrum domain awareness and emitter characterization to these platforms hosting cognitive EW toolkits. Forward and remote operators aided by cognitive EW toolkits would scrutinize the EMS feeds off the sensors to rapidly characterize the spectrum and when necessary, immediately start the development countermeasures. By leveraging machine learning toolkits, countermeasures would be ready to be employed by blue forces within hours. Eventually, as connectivity between platforms becomes more ubiquitous, detection and countermeasure profiles would be pushed within minutes and seconds. As cognitive EW technology matures, these toolkits would be embedded in forward strike platforms to better sense, identify, attribute, and share the current state of EMS environment between all forces and across all domains. These actions would allow blue forces to rapidly maneuver within the spectrum and denying the adversary the use of the spectrum that they are not able to recover.

Cognitive EW toolkits would not just be critical on the battlespace but also within the EW processing centers across the globe conducting the EW reprogramming cycle. Vast servers hosting cognitive EW algorithms would comb through various feeds of raw EMS data searching for the new and unusual signals. Like flakes of gold hidden in a riverbed, the computer would sift the endless flow of signals looking for the signatures of the unknown. These elusive signals are normally flagged by hand with analyst spelunking through the spectrum looking for the traces of the exotic. By leveraging the advantages of computers in pattern recognition signals that would normally been discarded as random noise or too faint to register would be flagged for exploitation. This effort alone would greatly improve the speed and quality of the products derived from EW reprogramming cutting the time needed to deliver update to the field. The work conducted on the ground would have an additional effect of improving cognitive EW detection and countermeasure development algorithms that can be shared across the enterprise.

This is not to say that human-derived EW and forensic based reprogramming is no longer needed. On the contrary, human-enabled reprogramming would become more vital than ever. This initiative would take a static library-based model and shift to a rapid machine learning construct that is responsive to the demands of an evolving enemy. Machine learning tools are enabled by vast arrays of data to train the machine to understand what is occurring within the spectrum. The efforts of collection, analysis, and dissemination during times of peace will improve cognitive EW algorithms, keeping pace with technological advances. It is certain that new and unusual signals would stump even the best cognitive EW tools and can only be solved by the ingenuity resident in the human domain. By pushing the “wicked hard” problems to the analysts and engineers, the US will stay ahead of the technology curve and avoid complacency in EMS readiness.

The EMS knows no limits and the photons do not care about threat envelopes, fire support coordination lines, national interests, or boundaries. As the DoD moves towards Joint All Domain Command and Control, shattering the adversaries hold on the EMS is of paramount importance. By setting goals to close EW capability gaps and a renewed spectrum mindfulness at all echelons, the US can produce advances towards EMS maneuver warfare. Cognitive EW is the first step to create rapid, focused, and unexpected actions within the EMS domain to generate situations in which the enemy cannot react fast enough to overcome the advance. One thing is for certain: unless bold steps are taken to address the challenges posed in the EMS domain, the US will have ceded the spectrum high ground for years to come.

Maj John Casey is a student at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. He is an Electronic Warfare Officer on the RC-135U COMBAT SENT with multiple deployments to the Central, European, and Indo-Pacific theaters. His previous experience includes tours at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, on the Air Staff, and as an Electronic Warfare Planner in Central Command.

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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