WASHINGTON — In a sense — and in one sense only — American and NATO forces have had it easy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With uncontested control of the skies and with little to fear from electronic jamming or precision fires, virtually all of the defensive electronic warfare missions they have conducted involve roadside bombs.
But future battlefields will likely be more complex and not quite as permissive, analysts and Pentagon thinkers warn, citing the increasing proliferation of precision munitions and the more sophisticated communications and electronic jamming gear that states can now wield.
Permissive or not, the electronic jamming capabilities the US Army has developed in Iraq and Afghanistan are a far cry from the service’s Centra Spike program, which used commercial airplanes packed with electronics to find and track the location of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s.
Since 2011, Army units rotating into Afghanistan have used the Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance and Reconnaissance (CEASAR) system, a beyond-line-of-sight electronic jammer mounted on a Beechcraft King airplane that can both intercept phone communications on the ground as well as jam enemy cellphones.
The jammer is a repackaged version of the communications jammer found on the EA-18G Growler and was initially sent to Afghanistan in 2011 as a forward operational assessment program.
But the system “did so well in its forward operational assessment, the war fighter said, ‘Hey, why don’t you leave it here?’ ” instead of shipping it back to the states, Col. Jim Ekvall, chief of the Army’s electronic warfare office, told Defense News on May 20.
While the program has been highly successful in eavesdropping on Taliban cellphone communications and has given dismounted troops a better sense of what they’re facing over the next ridgeline, Ekvall is well aware of the issues US forces will likely face in controlling the electromagnetic spectrum in coming years.
“We can’t afford to build something that only works in a permissive environment, or it only works in a [counterinsurgency] environment,” he said, “but if you take on a sophisticated enemy it’s not going to work.” Anything the Army builds has to be able to fight across the spectrum. “It’s gotta be versatile, it’s gotta be flexible, it’s gotta be programmable.”
Given the success of CEASAR on manned aircraft, the Army is working to attach the jamming pod on its MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV, dubbing it the Networked Electronic Warfare, Remotely Operated (NERO). Ekvall said the Roman theme is by design: He decided that all of the Army’s airborne electronic warfare technologies will use this naming convention.
The move to NERO is indicative of how the Army has changed some of its procurement processes to meet urgent wartime needs over the past decade.
After commanders in Afghanistan started asking about an unmanned version of CEASAR, Ekvall approached the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization to see if it could fund installing a CEASAR on a Gray Eagle. The office funded an assessment program that fit in nicely with the Gray Eagle evaluations the Army was already conducting.
NERO is set to deploy to Afghanistan in 2014 for operational assessments. Both CEASAR and NERO are produced by Raytheon.
Continuing the trend, in January the Army issued a request for information for an even smaller version of the jammer that can be fitted on UAVs — as small as the hand-launched Wasp or Puma.
The service “is looking at some testing where companies can prove out the airborne electronic attack capability that we’re calling NERVA,” Ekvall said. “Industry has come back and said, ‘Hey, we know what CEASAR did; we think we can make it smaller.’ ”
NERVA — in addition to being a Roman emperor for two years before dying of natural causes — also stands for Networked Electronic Warfare Remote Vehicle-Aerial.
Budgets being what they are, there is some worry that all of these programs — which are being funded completely by supplemental war budgets — might be in trouble once war funding shrinks.
“We’re going to continue to rely on [supplemental] funds, but at some point it’s going to have to go into the base budget,” Ekvall said, acknowledging that competition for resources in coming years will be tight.
Still, given that the Army relies more than ever on a safe, secure electromagnetic spectrum to enable its communications and its growing arsenal of GPS-enabled precision munitions, Ekvall said his job is “all about creating freedom of maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum” while also defeating the enemy’s ability to use the spectrum. ■