WASHINGTON — The US Army doesn't need the Russians to jam its electronic equipment when it can do so itself, according to the Army's Electronic Warfare Division chief.
The service is working to refine its electronic warfare (EW) tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) so there are no surprises on the battlefield when it comes to malfunctioning equipment, Col. Jeffrey Church told Defense News in a recent interview at the Pentagon.
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 has been slow to develop its EW capability.
With a new Army chief of staff and secretary that want to prioritize countering growing threats in the cyber and electronic realm while protecting the service's communication networks, Church said the service is now making some positive steps forward in those areas.
One way the Army is tackling its lagging EW capability is by training soldiers how to defend against EW attacks and how to operate electronics in the field properly so they aren't jamming themselves, according to Church. Some of that means getting back to the basics and also managing the spectrum better.
While it wasn't a prominent aspect of Poland's national military exercise Anakonda in June, the US Army incorporated EW and cyber events into operations there.
"For safety purposes we did not do any electronic warfare events during the live fire [demonstration at Anakonda]," Church said. Instead the Army used a training mechanism called "white carding" where a unit or a soldier is handed a card that indicates there is a problem, whether it's mild static or complete silence.
The reason such an approach was taken in the exercise is "sitting next to a Polish town, they would prefer their cellphones and TVs, they prefer that continues to work for the local population," he said.
The Army's EW office is sorting through the key takeaways from Anakonda, but one issue that became very apparent during the exercise is that spectrum management is still very important, according to Church. "If you don't deconflict your frequencies, well I don't need the Russians to jam me if I'm jamming myself, right?"
The Army also realized that it has to get better at deconflicting frequencies, which essentially means enforcing the rules better, according to Church. If a unit is assigned a specific frequency, it should not be using a different frequency.
The Army's EW division plans next to conduct a major training exercise at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, in August to refine major TTPs for operating in the electromagnetic spectrum, Church said.
The training won't just address the obvious Russian threat but also issues that could arise due to interference from things like the sun, being too close to other things giving off electricity like a generator, or operating too close to or on a wrong frequency.
The training through NTC will also incorporate a contested cyberspace.
"We are taking a unit in the Army — a brigade combat team — at the peak of its training and we are going to expose them to effects that other nation states who might be adversarial to us — could expose them to in a deployed environment," Church said. "It probably won't be a 24/7 'black out the spectrum so they can't talk.' It'll be controlled, obviously, under the opposing force. They will have to plan, they will have to execute, they will have to position equipment."
The hope is the training will be effective in developing TTPs that a brigade combat team could use "right now, today, to minimize the effects of adversaries," Church said.
But it's also about going back to the past, in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, when the Army was good at EW because it was facing the Soviet Union. Over the last 15 years of fighting counterinsurgency, the Army has let its training in the area slip.
Going back to basics means "little things" like talking on low power rather than high power, using directional antennas, terrain masking, putting a big hill in between the unit and the enemy so it's hard for them to jam or even hear the unit. Also, soldiers will need to relearn how to use a map, a compass, and pace counts for orientation, Church said.
Of course, the NTC is a playground for live-jamming practice because it's in the middle of nowhere, according to Church. But the Army is also figuring out how to train soldiers while they are at home station to handle electronic attacks.
It turns out the service already owns what is calls a direct injection jammer, which has been used for testing equipment during development. Now the EW program office is going to use these to safely train soldiers to handle electronic interference at more urban military bases without jamming a civilian using a GPS on his way to the grocery store to get milk, for example, Church said.
The direct injection jammer is a small box that can be mounted in a vehicle or worn on body armor that plugs into equipment through a cable and is programmed to interfere with what it's plugged into without affecting nearby equipment.
The jammers will make it possible for soldiers to train in foreign countries as well without needing permission to operate in their spectrums and will save the Army time in having to seek permission from entities like the Federal Communications Commission or local airports, Church added.
While the Army is behind, Church said, "we are taking those steps to get caught up ... and get ourselves back into the electromagnetic spectrum, to get ourselves back into the fight and regain our position of dominance."
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.