WASHINGTON — The US Army’s Electronic Warfare Division chief for operations likes to say his favorite person is Vladimir Putin.
“Vladimir Putin and the things that he has done in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and starting to do in Syria is getting a lot of attention on what it means to have a modern, ready, [electronic warfare]-capable force,” Col. Jeffrey Church said in a recent interview. “Those actions have gotten more traction for Army Electronic Warfare and the need to do that than anything previous.”
The Army relies on the electromagnetic spectrum for everything from the individual soldier’s communications to precise weapons targeting and situational awareness, but even with this major dependence, the service is slow to develop its electronic warfare capability, Church said.
“All of those investments that we make, those billions of dollars of investments that we make in our other weapons systems and other command and control systems, those can be significantly challenged by our adversaries’ investments in electronic warfare,” Church said.
The Russians in particular have continued to develop strong electronic warfare tactics. Just how good the Russians are is highlighted in the war in Ukraine. US Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has called that capability “eye-watering” on many occasions.
While the Russians never stopped developing EW capabilities, the US has not focused heavily on a serious electronic warfare capability for a long time.
Church sees this changing.
What happened to the Army’s EW capability?
The Army used to have a robust electronic warfare capability during the Cold War, Church said.
The service’s Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence Battalions were equipped and trained to win in a contested electromagnetic spectrum. These battalions had helicopters outfitted for electronic surveillance and attack, they had jamming capabilities, could collect signals, listen to various frequencies and make decisions on whether to keep listening or even attack it, Church explained.
Then the Soviet Union dissolved and the US entered the an era of peace. “Part our peace dividend that the Army cashed in on was we got out of electronic warfare,” Church said.
The Army determined it could rely on the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps’ capabilities instead.
Then the Army found itself back in war in Iraq and Afghanistan where it encountered the radio-controlled improvised explosive device — the number one killer of US forces.
Roadside bombs were often detonated remotely using a basic cell phone. “We said we need to get back into the business of defeating things like these radio transmissions called cell phones,” Church said.
In 2005, the Army invented — through a quick-reaction capability — its Counter Radio-controlled Improvised Explosive Device – Electronic Warfare systems (CREW), which could jam signals to prevent remote detonation of IEDs.
The Army also stood up the service’s Electronic Warfare program office, bringing on its first batch of Army electronic warfare officers in 2010, including Church. The program also established a Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager to oversee EW, a program management office and an EW proponent office.
“It has taken us 10 years to get to where we have all the right pieces that the Army requires you to have to create requirements, get into the budget, and then go do acquisition,” Church said.
The Acquisition Challenge
The Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS) is the future of Army EW. It has three parts: The Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool (EWPMT), the Multi-Function Electronic Warfare (MFEW) capability and the Defensive Electronic Attack (DEA) capability.
An initial version of the planning and management tool is scheduled to be fielded to the Army around September, Church said.
The original plan was to field the tool in 2009, but the acquisition was delayed dramatically while the Army assembled its EW office and also due to a bid protest that halted work on the tool from December 2012 through the summer 2014.
The planning tool will allow soldiers to plan, coordinate and synchronize electronic warfare within the electromagnetic spectrum using a computer screen with visuals aids, Church said.
The next step is to field the MFEW system, which will provide the ability to detect signals and to jam them if necessary. The capability will be housed on a large and small unmanned aircraft and later a rotary wing aircraft (like the old days). The capability will also reside in a large and small ground vehicle, at fixed sites and as a wearable device for the dismounted soldier.
The Army is first tackling the large air capability and will then work to develop a large ground capability.
The plan now is for the MFEW large air version to reach initial operational capability in 2023. The rest will follow.
Next year, the Army will have to decide whether it will move forward with the defensive component of the IEWS. The capability could defeat small UAS, proximity fuses and other things in the spectrum like CREW did with radio-controlled IEDs.
“If we do not get that decision now, and in two years we decide we do need it, we are going to be too late,” because CREW is expected to reach end-of-useful-life status between 2021 and 2025, Church said.
Mind the Gap
MFEW is “the first thing out of the gate to give us this [EW] capability controlled and owned by the Army, we are talking about 2023,” Church said. “Now what happens between tonight and that day in 2023 when the first thing rolls off the production line? That is a whole lot of time that we might have challenges where people contest our Army in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
And the other services can’t be expected to fill in for the Army when it needs the capability. The Army needs systems where commanders own, control and say when to turn them off and when to turn them on, Church said.
In February, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sponsored new bipartisan legislation introduced to boost the Pentagon’s electronic warfare efforts.
The Electronic Warfare Enhancement Act would require the Pentagon to supply Congress with a strategic plan for enhancing its electronic warfare capabilities, through cross-service cooperation, streamlining acquisitions and improving training and advancing offensive capabilities.
While the bill is meant for the entire Pentagon, Church said he hopes, if it passes, it will directly help the Army move forward much faster in fielding its EW capability.
The technology is there, Church said. “I could prove to you intuitively that the technology exists by citing the Russians are doing it in the Ukraine.”
If the Army acquired new EW capability it could overmatch, for example, Russia’s older technology, according to Church. “If we had the funding, we could buy US-produced electronic warfare capabilities that are ready to go today,” he said.
The investment would be worth the cost because “if you employ your electronic warfare properly … you would not need your armored brigade, your airborne brigade or your infantry brigade. You would eliminate the problem using your electronic warfare capabilities,” Church said.
The Army must also consider developing EW units like it had during the Cold War, according to Church. Soldiers trained to perform EW missions are often only equipped with basic gear and not EW-specific equipment, he said, adding there’s a joke circulating that the EW stands for “extra worker.”
Church said after studying how an EW unit might look when formed, “I would advocate that we need one large EW unit where we put all of our soldiers . . . our equipment, and where we do all of our maintenance. . . . where we can do all of our training.”
When a commander needs an EW unit, the most-trained soldiers with the best equipment can deploy from the larger unit, Church said.
Another shortfall the Army could fix now is improving EW training. “We could do defensive training right now that would make our ability to fight and win less reliant on this spectrum,” Church said.
The military deputy to Army acquisition chief Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson said at a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee hearing March 2 that electronic warfare is “one of those areas that we are concerned with and its effect on our ability to operate.”
Williamson added, “The concern I would have is that as you look at the access to technologies our current adversaries and our potential adversaries have, the ability to draw from the internet and available technology that is out there and develop counters to some of our very important systems, it’s critical for us to make an investment in electronic warfare.”