In March 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed a group of experts to support him in his NATO 2030 initiative that aims to provide independent advice on how to strengthen the alliance. The expert group’s report, ‘NATO 2030: United for a New Era’, makes for sobering reading.
NATO must ‘expand efforts to assess the implications of China’s technological development and monitor and defend against any Chinese activities that could impact collective defence, military readiness or resilience’ in the alliance’s areas of responsibility.
The PRC is not NATO’s only preoccupation as Russia continues to pose security challenges to NATO’s eastern flank. Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars has given President Putin the opportunity to not only demonstrate Russian strategic resolve but also to showcase new platforms and capabilities, including fifth-generation fighters and long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
Beyond these deployments, like the PLA, the Russian armed forces are overhauling their C3 capabilities. This is best illustrated by Russian investments into new battle management systems and tactical radios – two capabilities the country has arguably left to atrophy since the end of the Cold War.
Significant electromagnetic (EM) modernisations of the armies of near-peer rivals like the PRC and Russia are being performed against a backdrop of rapid technological advancement in the West. The US is at the leading edge of the trend towards multi-domain operations where platforms, personnel, bases, weapons and sensors will enjoy unprecedented levels of connectivity. This will allow them to share data in real time to enable joint forces to manoeuvre and prevail in the air, land, sea, space and EM domains.
The advent of so-called ‘fifth-generation’ (5G) wireless communications protocols is likely to trigger a corresponding deluge of the spectrum, particularly within V/UHF wavebands.
Meanwhile, the EM spectrum (EMS) is becoming ever-more crowded with civilian users. The advent of so-called ‘fifth-generation’ (5G) wireless communications protocols is likely to trigger a corresponding deluge of the spectrum, particularly within V/UHF wavebands used by military radios, SATCOM and some radars. To put matters into perspective, wireless infrastructure provider Ericsson predicts that the consumer element of the future 5G market could be worth $31 trillion by 2030.
Similarly, Research and Markets predicts that the market for 5G devices could be worth $46 billion by 2030, with a corresponding demand for 666.2 million devices. Such figures could translate into mind-bending levels of saturation for V/UHF wavebands by civilian and commercial 5G devices, driven by the so-called Internet of Things. SIGINT professionals will have to sort through this morass to find the signal of interest.
These three modernisation trends have implications for EW practitioners – they must be capable of exploiting the spectrum to collect communications and ELINT on hostile and friendly communications networks and radars to build blue- and red-force electronic orders of battle. At the same time, they need to exploit the spectrum to at first win EM superiority and then supremacy while denying this to their adversaries. How are EW training providers equipping fledgling and established professionals with the skills required for tomorrow’s conflicts?
In recent years, the private sector has absorbed an increasing share of this training burden. Several companies in Europe and North America offer EW training – such as Alion, Inzpire, Leonardo and MASS, alongside non-profit bodies like the Association of Old Crows EW advocacy organisation and academic institutions like Cranfield University in England.
Stephen T Ling, senior director for EMS operations for cyber and ISR programmes at Alion Science and Technology, argues that recent conflicts ‘woke everyone up to the fact that EW capabilities and expertise have atrophied over the years’. Taph Williamson, head of training for MASS, agrees: ‘Many recent conflicts have lulled EW practitioners and planners into a false sense of security.’
According to Ling, such shortcomings were ‘proven in numerous tactical scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan’ where ‘an inability to efficiently and effectively employ EW assets and electromagnetic spectrum-dependent systems’ was illustrated.
Ling cited ‘our unpreparedness for and the many years of EW training required to focus on countering radio-controlled improvised explosive devices’. Likewise, Williamson argued that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq showed that ‘minimal understanding and knowledge have been sufficient to dominate less technically advanced opposing forces in environments where technological superiority has created success rather than technical operator competence’.
The operational pivot back to near-peer rivalry has resulted in a situation in which the military is shepherding an evolution in EW training to reflect this reality. The problem is, as Ling noted, that some key personnel may not have ‘had the opportunity to concentrate on a peer/near-peer adversary throughout their careers’.
This in turn risks creating an EW training deficit. ‘As military tensions intensify in Europe, the Middle East and around the coast of the USA, a need to understand the theory and practical application of EW is again coming to the forefront,’ observed Williamson.
Ling believes that one solution to this shortcoming is to deepen the involvement in training of ‘civilians and contractors with prior military service and expertise in these areas’. These contractors can either support existing courses offered by defence ministries and armed forces or provide training outright or as an augmentation of existing EW instruction.
Ultimately, ‘political and state-on-state tensions may increase to Cold War levels. In this environment, training to re-establish a credible and effective EW capability is crucial for nations to maintain their readiness to both react and defend across multiple spectrums of conflict’, urged Williamson.
The growing importance of the EMS as an operating environment will have an impact on EW training, said Ling. The reliance that militaries place on radars and radios for situational awareness (SA) and C2 means that they are very much targets for electronic and kinetic attack.
Near-peer adversaries like China and Russia have correctly observed the reliance that the US and its allies place on the EMS for SA and C2. Both nations’ armed forces are now pouring investment into EW capabilities that can detect and attack hostile emitters. Failure to achieve superiority here makes victory hard, if not impossible, at operational and tactical levels.
Although the EMS is not a named domain, noted Ling, it is considered an operating environment in its own right. ‘The EMS is a physics-based manoeuvre space just like the sea, land and air domains. With that, all the principles of warfare apply.’ Furthermore, ‘it is the connective tissue between and among the air, land, maritime, space and cyber environments which all rely on the spectrum’.
Therefore, ‘training is evolving to thoroughly understand how the other domains rely on the EMS and how to orchestrate operations to ensure dominance in each of these domains at a time and place of our choosing’.
Similarly, the emergence of so-called hybrid warfare is having an impact. Hybrid warfare was defined by a 2019 US DoD article as ‘the effort to achieve strategic objectives without using significant force [but instead by using] information operations, troop movements, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks or a combination of these things’.
There is an imperative ‘to understand how a modern force operates in a congested, cluttered, connected and constrained battlespace’, explained Williamson. This can be achieved by using subject matter experts to emphasise the links between cyber and EW ‘to ensure knowledge transfer by suitable qualified and experienced personnel’.
The increasing participation of the private sector in EW training is occurring alongside an expansion of the areas syllabuses need to cover. EW encompasses an array of technologies. This can include big data, AI, machine learning and cognitive systems, to name just four. Ling argued that EW, and the military in general, has witnessed a technology paradigm shift since the Cold War.
At that time, it was arguably the military that was at the leading edge of technology, with innovations being spun out into the civilian and commercial sectors. ‘We all know that technological advances were historically driven by the military,’ noted Ling. ‘In the 1980s and 1990s, that paradigm was turned around and commercial interests began driving technology. This rapid evolution of [commercial] technologies will drive the need for flexibility and nimbleness in EW training curricula.’
Moreover, it is unlikely that EW professionals will need just one or two courses at the beginning of their careers to prepare them for their profession. Instead, continuing education will be the norm. The rapid pace of technological evolution, particularly in the civilian domain, will compel EW professionals to regularly invest in training throughout their career. This will be amplified by the fact that many technologies entering the civilian world will have a direct impact on the EMS, and hence EW.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the ongoing saturation of the EMS with civilian and commercial wireless devices. This demand for continuing education could directly benefit commercial providers that can design and deliver the kind of refresher and short courses these professionals need, as well as traditional longer syllabuses.
As illustrated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there is every likelihood that these will be delivered online as well as in traditional classroom settings. This has the added appeal that the student can pursue their studies wherever they are and at a pace which suits them. Online training is ‘a recognised way of delivering course content at reach, but also more cost-effectively’, noted Williamson. ‘For the more challenging training sessions, face-to-face practical instruction and simulation can be delivered to help ensure participants have a firm understanding of the complex material being covered.’
Alongside distance learning models for EW instruction, training providers are seeing increased demand for tailored courses. ‘The vast majority of our customers require bespoke courses in line with end-user operational requirements,’ Williamson said. ‘Therefore, we naturally change our syllabuses to meet the customer demands.’
This is exemplified by ‘the requirement to offer flexible and adaptable training which keeps up with emerging technological and doctrinal changes, which is critical for students moving into a fast-paced, fluid environment’.
This ability to perform customised EW training in a virtual classroom is mirrored in the live environment. The same saturation of the spectrum by civilian wireless devices is having an impact on the delivery of live EW training, encouraging governments to auction off parts of the EMS that they control nationally to telecommunications providers. This not only frees up spectrum for civilian users but can also net exchequers billions of dollars in revenue.
For example, on 25 August 2020, the US Federal Communications Commission announced that it had concluded bidding for Priority Access Licenses for a slice of the EMS from 3.55-3.65GHZ worth up to $4.5 billion, including part of the S-band spectrum allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for the global management of the EMS, for radar.
While these frequencies will remain reserved for radar by the ITU in international waters and airspace, it does mean that US military operators of S-band radars will have to exercise caution when using these systems domestically. This could also have implications for EW training as the ability to operate EW training emulators which simulate S-band radar transmissions could become restricted.
Help may be at hand from simulated transmissions. ‘Actual transmission of RF energy, even at established ranges, is increasingly restricted due to the auction of frequency bands,’ Ling noted. ‘While a boon to the commercial cellular and wireless portions of the economy, the narrowing spectrum environment places severe restrictions on “full-up” EW training.’
One solution is to be found in LVC training, with simulated elements loaded into live events. ‘There is nothing better than a live environment, but due to the increasing restrictions of spectrum use, LVC will emerge as a cornerstone for EW training.’
The EMS continues to grow in importance to the military. Fortunately, EW training is adapting and changing to meet these dynamics, helped in no small part by the efforts of commercial providers.