WASHINGTON — Worried the U.S. Army is unprepared to take on Russia in Europe, U.S. lawmakers have advanced legislative language to pressure the Pentagon to catch up on electronic warfare, long-range missiles and countering drones.
The proposed language would require Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to give Congress a strategy to speed Army’s tech development in the three areas — a sign of a growing bipartisan lawmaker interest.
Though the proposal, part of the House’s 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, must be reconciled with the Senate’s version, it’s telling that both the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Chairman Mac Thornberry, and top Democrat, ranking member Adam Smith, are on board.
“As we see the sophisticated capabilities that our potential adversaries, especially the Russians and the Chinese, are developing, I am concerned that we are falling behind in areas where we used to be a leader and that we are failing to develop emerging technologies at the appropriate pace,” Thornberry said in a statement.
The provision comes from a bill Smith proposed in July aimed at forcing the Trump administration to craft a full policy to deter Russian aggression — including plans to provide the “proper attention, focus and resources” to counter Russian electronic warfare, Smith said in a statement.
DoD has largely been focused on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism for the past decade and a half. But in the wake of Russian belligerence in Europe, there’s a growing acknowledgement America needs to address Russian capabilities, especially those that can spoof America’s systems, degrade its command and control and eavesdrop on its communications.
The Army, in particular, looks vulnerable. The Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, a bulwark of the NATO alliance that has spent recent years rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, lacks “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed,” according an analysis by the brigade, obtained by Politico.
Capability gaps emerged in recent training with Ukrainian troops who had experience battling Russian-backed separatists. Those forces have used cheap drones and electronic warfare tools to pinpoint targets for artillery barrages and devastate Ukraine’s armored vehicles with state-of-the-art Russian antitank missiles.
Shortfalls, which included the 173rd’s lack of air defense and electronic warfare units, and over-reliance on satellite communications and GPS navigation systems were tied to the Army’s years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy has no air power or other high-end equipment and technology, Politico reported.
Little relief is coming under current plans as current EW investment totals just 0.8 percent and 1.6 percent of the Army’s procurement and research and development budgets, respectively, leaving the Army without a new offensive jammer until 2023. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report from Andrew Hunter calls on the Army to “significantly increase EW funding in the coming years to not only accelerate production of new capabilities but also to fund production of critical capacity indigenous to the Army.”
Former U.S. Army’s electronic warfare division chief Laurie Moe Buckhout, now with The Corvus Group, said that from the top down, the Russians better understand cyber and electronic warfare as an integrated element when maneuvering their own forces and shaping their enemies’ forces. Russian forces might jam an opposing force’s comms, “and if they’re deaf, dumb and blind, they’re going to stop,” she said.
“Then you can channel them by allowing them to communicate in one space and not in another,” she said. “In the Ukraine, they’re driving them off the tactical radio network and onto the cell phones. Then Russian forces are able to target them with kinetic fires because they own the cell phone networks. They’re listening to every word they say and text messaging them as the artillery is coming down.”
Russian troops are better prepared to fight through their own jamming efforts; their senior commanders better understand it than U.S. commanders do; and their Army employs tightly integrated EW-signals intelligence capabilities across its force structure, Buckhout said.
Moreover, Russian troops have “echeloned” capabilities — smaller manpack and unmanned aerial systems forward along with rotary wing jammers and signals intelligence— and farther back larger, more powerful SIGINT/EW equipment. U.S. ground forces typically have smaller systems, still aimed at countering roadside bombs within a tight radius.
To Buckhout, the Army’s challenge remains getting past the brigade combat team “building block” concept to integrate EW and SIGINT. Her concerns are that the Army must be able to have integrated, larger and higher-capacity SIGINT/EW systems at division and corps, not just higher quantities of the same type.
“They have 18-wheelers with parabolic dishes 18 to 20 feet in diameter, and they’re not even made for use at the quick halt, but those things can jam at a 200 km radius and take out an [airborne early warning and control radar] and do some serious damage,” Buckhout said of the Russians. By contrast, she likened U.S. Army’s counter-IED electronic warfare capability to “a .50-cal that shoots one bullet per hour in one direction.”
Russia has a suite of platforms, each designed to counter a U.S. comms capability, according to an Army Asymmetric Warfare Group report. The Russians layer these systems to jam FM, satellite, cellular, GPS and other signals. Certain platforms can emit a signal to overload electronic fuses on incoming guided munitions so that they either detonate early or change course once they make contact with one of these “EW bubbles.”
EW devices also let Russian forces broadcast messages directly to opposing Ukrainian forces for psychological impact.
“These can be very specific and directed at individuals, such as by threatening their wives and children by name or generic and sent to entire units, as was the case in Ukraine,” the AWG reports. “Ukrainian soldiers received text messages on their phone with threats against their families and accurate information of family locations.”
And yet there are indications Russian capabilities are limited. The same AWG analysis says the Russian Army will display key weapon systems as universal when they actually exist in limited numbers.
For an anti-access, area-denial, or A2AD, bubble to protect Russian brigades in a major ground operation, Russian forces would need larger numbers of EW and air defense platforms than they have, AWG says. Nearly all of such platforms are in Kaliningrad, Ukraine and Syria.
“Losing even one of these systems is a significant blow to Russian forces and creates a gap in their A2AD bubble that can be exploited,” AWG says.
Given the lethal roadside bomb threat of the last decade or more, it’s understandable the U.S. military for years focused its resources in countering a less sophisticated enemy, said Thomas Withington, an electronic warfare analyst and consultant in France.
“I think a lot of U.S. and NATO doctrine at the moment is based on the assumption of a low-tech enemy, and to be fair, you can’t configure for everything,” Withington said. “Military procurement is all about trade-offs.”
Withington questioned whether Russian EW is the threat it’s been hyped to be. Russia’s ability to fight in a spectrum-contested environment against a NATO-trained enemy is unproven, and it has, tellingly, lost aircraft to rockets in Syria and to NATO air defenses.
“That says to me that their jamming isn’t as good as it should be,” Withington said. “Russian EW tends to have quite a lot of bluster behind it. It’s always the best system, the most powerful, and it’s always on all of their airplanes. Then you find out it isn’t.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.