Despite Renewed Focus on EW, DoD Struggles to Keep Pace with Technology
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
ARLINGTON, Va. — After 25 years of “inattention,” the Defense Department (D0D) is getting serious about electronic warfare (EW) with the release of an overall strategy and high-level efforts to implement that through doctrine, tactics and technology, a top Pentagon official on EW said June 22.
But the drive to regain an advantage in EW is hindered by an inability to keep pace with the rapid technological advances in the commercial sector and the intense focus by potential adversaries, particularly China, on gaining dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum, said William Conley, the deputy director for electronic warfare in the Pentagon.
The renewed focus on EW is important because it figures prominently in the growing anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) threat from China, Russia and others, and is a key factor in the multi-domain battle concept being developed by US armed forces, Conley said.
“A2AD is basically a fight in the electromagnetic spectrum,” as adversaries attempt to prevent U.S. forces from projecting power against them, he said. He cited as an example the increasing range of surface-to-air missiles since the Vietnam War, which could reach 600 kilometers by the 2030s.
But to hit a target at that distance requires use of electromagnetic (EM) emissions for initial and terminal guidance, which generates the contest over who controls the EM spectrum.
Electronic warfare also plays an important role in multi-domain battle, “which is really about being able to use the electromagnetic spectrum to network everything together,” Conley said in a briefing for the Mitchell Institute.
The military’s effort to increase its EW capabilities faces the problem where the 10 major companies providing cell phones and other commercial communication systems spend about $50 billion a year on research and development, while the armed services spend just over $5 billion, Conley said.
“At this point, we will be outpaced by the rate of innovation that occurs in the commercial world,” and must be careful “about how and where we spend our money,” he said.
In one major movement to overcome the decade-plus of inattention, Conley said the Defense Department approved a new electronic warfare strategy just over a year ago, with a vision of developing “agile, adaptive and integrated warfare to offensively achieve electromagnetic spectrum superiority across the range of military operations.”
That must address not just material solutions but organization and people, he said.
The goals of the strategy are to organize the EW enterprise to ensure electromagnetic spectrum superiority; train and educate the force for 21st century EW and EM spectrum superiority; equip the force with agile, adaptive and integrated EW capabilities; and bolster partnerships with industry, academia, other government agencies and allies partners.
Conley stressed the importance of that last goal because the U.S. military almost never fights alone. He noted recent actions by NATO to increase the alliance’s focus on electronic warfare.
After adopting the new strategy, the Pentagon created an Electronic Warfare Executive Commission, consisting of top-level civilian and uniformed leaders, including the vice chief of naval operations, which is to provide senior oversight, coordination, budget/capacity harmonization and advice on EW matters.
That “four-star”-level commission is backed up by lower-level working groups of key civilian and military officials.
Key focus areas are continued technological advances and ensuring there are more training opportunities for the services to practice electronic warfare.
“We got where we are in electronic warfare after 25 years of inattention,” and it could take that long to gain the needed capabilities, Conley said.
“I think the trend is in the right direction. … But a lot of work remains to be done,” he said.