By Squadron Leader Jimmy
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader James Owen of the Royal Australian Air Force examines the importance of fully exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum in future high-intensity war.
The introduction in 1915 of the so-called ‘interrupter’ gear allowed pilots to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc of First World War combat aircraft. This was a decisive change; pilots could now find and track targets in their field of view, assess their situation, manoeuvre their aircraft and engage threats with some degree of accuracy. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
This critical development turned aircraft into competent air-to-air combat machines that could have a significant effect in their contemporary battlespace. Presently, and moving into the future, high-intensity warfighting operations against a peer adversary will require a level of dynamic joint and combined integration in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) that is akin to an organisational interrupter gear. The electromagnetic interrupter gear will need to synchronise spectrum requirements for communications, radars and precision navigation and timing as well as requirements for understanding what the similar threat systems are doing, and the conduct of offensive electronic warfare to degrade and disrupt the threat’s use of the spectrum. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) and its allies will need to be able to find and track threats in the EMS, assess their future courses of action, manoeuvre both physically and in the EMS and engage through the most appropriate warfighting domain. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
Potential threat nations learned from the West’s way of war after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign; the strength of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese integrated air defence systems are a testament to this. Similarly, potential threat actors have observed the West’s recent campaigns and adapted to meet them. Threat actors are exploiting the ‘grey zone’ that precedes a declared conventional war; they have sophisticated approaches for leveraging multi-domain effects to achieve their objectives. Experiences from Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea demonstrate that the ‘unconventional’ and hybrid are now conventional and will be part of the reality of high-intensity warfare. The presence of proxy, paramilitary or deniable forces of little green men or little blue men, an array of remotely controlled or robotic threats and a complex multi-pronged contest in the EMS should now be assumed in high-intensity warfare, and the grey zone of conflict escalation that precedes it. It is therefore valuable to review some significant themes in recent campaigns to identify signposts for the role of EMS operations in high-intensity warfare.
Manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum can be Decisive in the Physical Domain
Much has been written elsewhere over the last decade about the ‘unconventional’ threat that western militaries faced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Western militaries were caught on the hop by the proliferation of improvised threats that exploited the EMS, particularly during the initial counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remote controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had a huge impact on the approach to manoeuvre by western forces. IEDs targeted the strategic centre of gravity of the West; casualty numbers. Arguably the constraints that these devices placed on the ability of western forces to manoeuvre at will in the physical domain and engage freely with the population had a strategic impact on the course of those wars. Behind the explosions, there was an unforeseen and dynamic battle of cat and mouse in the EMS. There is a significant amount written elsewhere about the importance of being able to ‘manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum’; the IED contest is a useful and tangible lesson in what that phrase means. As IED makers developed new means of activating IEDs remotely, western forces developed jammers to defeat those devices; the IED makers then quickly adapted to another remote device in another part of the spectrum, and the dance continued.
Control of the Air depends on Control of the EMS – Examples from Hybrid Warfare
The Air Power Manual, AAP-1000D, Australia’s current capstone air power doctrine, defines Control of the Air as ‘the ability to conduct friendly operations in all three dimensions without effective interference from enemy air power.’ Recent and ongoing conflicts have demonstrated that the air is now contested through an array of remotely controlled and robotic devices; to defeat those devices requires an equivalent ‘Control of the EMS’. The following examples will explore some recent examples that signpost the requirements of EMS operations in a high-intensity conflict.
In January 2018, non-state actors conducted a co-ordinated strike mission against Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria with a total of 13 improvised unmanned air systems (UAS). According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, all the UAS were ‘detected […] at the safe distance (sic) from the base’ and neutralised without hitting their target. Control of some of the UAS was ‘seized’ by Russian ‘Electronic Warfare hardware’ which forced them to land; short-range air defence systems destroyed some. The Russian Ministry of Defence indicated that they used a layered system of multi-domain air defence that integrated EW and air defence batteries.
Ironically, this kind of unconventional targeted strike seems to have learned from and built upon the tactics recently employed with devastating success against ammunition dumps in Eastern Ukraine. In those instances, the actor that conducted the attack is not clear or declared. The attacks were reportedly conducted by unidentified drones which dropped Russian thermite grenades onto their targets. The results indicate that the Ukrainian armed forces either could not find and track these drones, or the ability to engage them to prevent the successful conduct of their missions. It is possible that they had neither.
In both examples non-state, proxy, or deniable forces demonstrated intent and capability to deliver effects through the air to disrupt logistics and operations in depth. In the Syrian example, the Russians demonstrated that control of the EMS contributes significantly to control of the air in hybrid warfare; the Ukrainian example demonstrates that the absence of at least one essential part of the EMS interrupter gear undermines control of the air.
In February 2018, an Iranian ‘Saeqeh’ UAS conducted an incursion into Israeli airspace and was engaged and destroyed in around 90 seconds after crossing the border by AH-64 Apaches. This event has an interesting history that is very useful for understanding the relevance of effective EMS operations in high-intensity warfare. The ‘Saeqeh’ UAS itself is a clone of the US RQ-170 UAS. This cloning was made possible for Iranian defence and industry through an opportunity to reverse engineer a US RQ-170 low observable UAS that landed in Iran while on a reconnaissance mission in 2011. The Iranians claim that they forced that RQ-170 to land through a combination of datalink jamming and GPS spoofing by their EW Force, which fooled the RQ-170 into landing in Iran. Regardless of the truth in that event, the techniques that the Iranians claim to have used are plausible and point again to the role of EMS operations in control of the air.
Following the reverse engineering of the RQ-170 outlined above, the subsequent clone, called the ‘Saeqeh,’ conducted an incursion of Israeli airspace on February 18. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reported that they were able to track the ‘Saeqeh’ throughout its mission from its launch site near Palmyra in central Syria. It is not clear how this tracking was achieved, but it was almost certainly through the EMS through an electronic signature. Based on this tracking information the IDF assessed the route of the UAS and manoeuvred AH-64 Apaches to wait for it when it crossed into Israel. The Apaches engaged and destroyed the Saeqeh. Based upon the active exploitation of information from the EMS and integration with operations the IDF was able to find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage in neutralising this UAS; in this case with kinetic effects.
These RQ-170 and Saeqeh examples took place in the legal and political grey zone of armed conflict; the US and Israel, Iran and Syria are not in a formally declared war, and the borders are static. In both cases, it is likely that the defenders knew enough about the presence and nature of the UAS in question to have anticipated its activity and prepared a response; one kinetic, one non-kinetic but both appropriate responses based upon the fact that the engagements took place in the defender’s airspace. These scenarios were very predictable for all sides and not a complex or dynamic operational EMS challenge. In both circumstances, the ‘penetrating’ nation attempted to exploit low-observability and control of UAS through the EMS to achieve control of the air sufficient to achieve their mission. In both cases, the superior exploitation of the EMS by the defending force enabled them to maintain control of the air in their airspace.
It is apparent from the examples above that both the Russians and the Israelis demonstrated control of the air sufficient to defeat the threat that they faced. They both demonstrated that they have been able to manoeuvre both physically and, in the EMS, to meet their threat. They were able to find, track, assess and engage with EW or kinetic effects. It is apparent that the Ukrainian armed forces did not have Control of the Air sufficient to defeat the UAS attack through either kinetic or EMS effects and suffered the devastating success of the attack as a result.
The Russian and Israeli EMS ‘interrupter gears’ in these situations demonstrated an ability to anticipate and address threat manoeuvre in the EMS. It is important to recognise that the EMS environment that these defensive systems faced were essentially predictable and informed by several opportunities to understand the pattern of activity and character of their threat in the EMS. Aside from the UAS involved, the defensive forces that were involved or affected by these EMS operations were also largely static and well established. The respective Iranian and Israeli EMS command and control then only needed to deal with an EMS threat that could evolve or change over time periods such as weeks or months.
EMS Operations in High-Intensity Warfighting
In future high-intensity warfare, EMS operations are likely to be more complex than the scenarios above, but they will be an extension of the same themes and activities. The operating environment itself is likely to be more dynamic with a broad range of manoeuvring actors in the area. A peer adversary is likely to attempt to conduct multiple coordinated incursions into friendly airspace and territory with a broad range of remote weapon systems, many of which will use data links, sensors and transmitters that are hard to detect, characterise and track. The joint force will need to counter these across a coalition through integrated command and control of effects across the EMS and the warfighting domains. High-intensity warfighting will place extraordinary demands on the EMS interrupter gear, which will be critical to the success of operations by the joint and combined force.
A Way Ahead for ADF EMS operations
The solution for EMS operations is not just a technological one; effective EMS operations will also require significant evolutions in doctrine, organisation and training. For the former, the US has developed a doctrinal concept that they call ‘Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations’ (JEMSO). JEMSO is a strategic ‘top-down’ concept. JEMSO should create a common lexicon and a joint ‘umbrella’ framework for the US services to integrate their service-specific structures and approaches to EMS into a common command and control system at the joint force level. The ADF will similarly need an ability to conduct this integrated command and control of EMS operations on its own and to be interoperable with the US framework.
Organisationally, the ADF will need to adapt the joint force so that it can integrate, plan, and execute EMS operations. To properly exploit the potential of the EA-18G Growler and future electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, the ADF will need EMS Operations cells in operational and tactical level joint and single-domain headquarters. High-intensity warfare will demand that this capability is networked and synchronised throughout the joint force.
Innovation, Acquisition, and the EMS
It is not just the operational force that requires adaptation to meet the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the EMS. Threat evolution requires rapid development, acquisition, and integration of new technologies into the force. Intelligence will need to be geared to keep ahead of this threat and to inform the direction of capability management. To keep ahead of the threat, technological development and innovation will need to leverage the ideas of industry, academia and Australia’s own Defence Science and Technology Group; threat capabilities and warfighter requirements should lead this, not the availability of technology. To achieve sufficiently cutting-edge technology, this requires an agile acquisition system. A heavy appetite for innovation risk will be required; we should be prepared for projects to ‘fail’ when developing cutting-edge technologies, without seeing the activity as a failed effort.
Innovation and technological solutions will need to be lockstep with the warfighter to ensure that the appropriate training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) are developed by services or the joint force to introduce them to service. My previous review of The Hunter Killers highlighted the incredibly high casualty rate suffered by the first Wild Weasel surface-to-air missile hunting squadrons; half of the aircrew of the first squadron was killed-in-action. Within the early Wild Weasel programmes, technological developments were poorly integrated with intelligence for the warfighter which manifested in weak tactics development before their initial deployments. The high mortality rate is a testament to this lack of integration. To avoid a similar fate, the joint force will need a means of rapidly developing, prototyping, and fielding new technologies and a coherent means of integrating intelligence-led TTPs development to employ them effectively.
Train the Force to Operate in the EMS
Technological solutions can enable us to move EW effects to the frequency band that the threat is in, but only education and training can deliver the ‘skill and care’ necessary for effective EMS manoeuvre. The effective conduct of EMS operations needs educated warfighters that understand not just the technical aspects of this contest, but the operational concepts and inter-relationship with the other warfighting domains.
The Russian military has integrated EW capabilities throughout their forces:
Russian EW activity is integral with but not subordinate to signals intelligence, cyber and conventional combat capabilities. Along with the distinct operational advantages of EW integration into combined arms units and formations, this has a significant second-order effect; Russian officers become familiar and comfortable with the integration and use of EW at a very early stage of their career. They train to fight in and with it. Education provides warfighters with the understanding to identify operational changes and adapt promptly; most significantly it enables warfighters with the ability to adapt to unique and unforeseen circumstances in an innovative but logical fashion.
The ADF does not have such familiarity with EW within the joint force. It will require a new cadre of EW generalists throughout the force that can assist in the integration of EW at the lowest level; it will also require specialist planners at the tactical and operational levels.
The examples above demonstrate clear patterns in the exploitation of the EMS by state and non-state actors in hybrid warfare; use of remote devices in land and air to attack high profile and high payoff targets at the front line and in the rear area should be assumed to be the new baseline threat in hybrid warfare. Non-state actors increasingly have access to ever more sophisticated capabilities. However, it is apparent that conventional forces in future high-intensity warfare will use a broad spectrum of remotely controlled devices in land, sea and air that have much better range, are much faster, agiler in the EMS and more destructive than their non-state peers.
JEMSO offers the ADF a suitable model to develop an organisational EMS interrupter gear and a vector for the supporting capability management and force generation structures that are required to underpin it. Dynamic joint force acquisition and capability management will be a vital element of preparing the ADF to win the EMS contest in high-intensity warfighting; however, and while it has not been considered in this article, it remains a truism that the human component is likely to be the key to winning or losing. Ultimately, the ADF will need appropriately educated and trained warfighters able to anticipate, integrate and exploit the EMS. Warfighters empowered with education in operations in and through the EMS will be the foundation of victory in #highintensitywar.
Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
Squadron Leader Jimmy is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: Technicians from No. 6 Squadron RAAF perform an after flight inspection on an EA-18G Growler at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)