Future War & Dominance in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

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Global powers’‭ ‬military forces are shifting ever more attention to the need for dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum‭ (‬EMS‭). ‬This should come as no surprise‭, ‬as the EMS is not only critical to every part of modern daily life‭: ‬it enables navigation systems‭, ‬wireless‭ ‬internet and Bluetooth‭, ‬but also to military operations‭. ‬The EMS‭, ‬made up of the whole range of frequencies from radio waves to‭ ‬gamma rays‭, ‬plays a large role in the current military modernization taking shape all across the world‭. ‬Freedom of action in the‭ ‬EMIS is a prerequisite for information-driven‭, ‬multidomain operations‭, ‬increased speed and increased accuracy‭. ‬

The dependencies on the EMS of the most advanced militaries are already high‭. ‬This has also led to the dynamic that powers inferior in conventional strength‭, ‬have made the EMS the area of choice for asymmetrical warfare‭. ‬With all this activity‭, ‬the EMS gets‭ – ‬in the words of the US armed forces‭ – ‬increasingly‭ ‬“congested‭, ‬contested and constrained”‭. ‬Concrete examples of‭ ‬“electromagnetic warfare”‭ ‬remain relatively scarce‭. ‬But the growing technological sophistication in this field‭, ‬combined with the ongoing geopolitical competition‭, ‬makes the growth of offensive and defensive actions in the spectrum highly likely‭. ‬This article gives insights in how‭ ‬the EMS is crucial for military life‭, ‬the importance of the EMS in the modernization efforts of the key global powers and the technological possibilities that are expected to feature in‭ (‬future‭) ‬electromagnetic warfare‭.‬

Modern militaries’‭ ‬dependency on the EMS‭ ‬

More than a century since the introduction of radio communication‭, ‬military organizations exploit the full spectrum of frequencies to support operations and intelligence gathering‭. ‬Technological progress in the EMS has enabled a lot of new military capabilities and concepts‭, ‬including anything related to multidomain operations and network-centric warfare‭. ‬Frigates‭, ‬aircrafts or tanks‭: ‬the effectiveness of a large number of contemporary weapon systems in all domains is linked to freedom of action in the EMS‭,‬‭ ‬and so do systems for Command and Control‭, ‬Intelligence‭, ‬Surveillance and Reconnaissance‭ (‬C2ISR‭).‬

For example‭, ‬modern armed forces would be decapitated without functioning radar‭ (‬radio detection and ranging‭) ‬which generate a clear overview of the battlespace and can locate friendly and enemy forces‭. ‬Radar uses radio and microwave frequencies and is now‭ ‬at times being complemented by light detection and ranging‭ (‬LiDAR‭) ‬systems‭, ‬which for example enable driverless vehicles and minehunters‭. ‬LiDAR systems use laser pulses to establish the distance‭, ‬speed and location of a specific object or surface‭. ‬Another‭ ‬category of systems uses the emission of data from the spectrum for intelligence gathering‭, ‬for example by mapping heat concentrations indicating troops‭, ‬vehicles‭, ‬aircraft or missiles‭. ‬Missiles themselves commonly use radar or infrared to identify targets after launch‭. ‬

The wider use of the EMS has also created more crucial dependencies and thus significant vulnerabilities for modern armed forces‭. ‬Deception can be staged‭, ‬critical systems such as radars and communications can be disrupted and damaged‭. ‬As a result‭, ‬there is also an increase in systems aimed at the protection and the defense of actions in the spectrum‭, ‬often in the form of sophisticated encryption‭, ‬signal protection and electronic countermeasures‭. 

American EMS dominance being challenged‭ 

In October 2020‭, ‬the US Department of Defense published an‭ ‬“Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy”‭. ‬Its point of departure is the observation that‭ ‬“the Department is challenged to assure and maintain access‭, ‬use‭, ‬fires‭, ‬and maneuver within the Electromagnetic Spectrum‭ (‬EMS‭) ‬at home and abroad‭. ‬This jeopardizes the US military’s ability to sense‭, ‬command‭, ‬control‭, ‬communicate‭, ‬test‭, ‬train‭, ‬protect‭, ‬and project force effectively‭.‬”‭  ‬Throughout the strategy‭, ‬there is an acknowledgement that US adversaries are seeking to exploit the vulnerability of the US military’s dependence on EMS-dependent capabilities‭.‬

These vulnerabilities have been exacerbated in the last three decades‭. ‬With the ending of the Cold War with the Soviet Union‭, ‬the US military discontinued significant parts of its electronic warfare programs‭. ‬The focus shifted towards expeditionary counterterrorism operations in which the main opponents were operating with a low technological base‭. ‬For a long time‭, ‬the US dominance‭ ‬of the EMS remained uncontested‭, ‬leading to the neglect of the ability to protect and defend freedom of action in the spectrum‭.‬‭ ‬But that freedom of action is waning‭. ‬Ever more often‭, ‬US forces‭ (‬and allies‭) ‬experience a degraded information environment‭. ‬

In US strategies and doctrine‭, ‬the EMS has long been identified as an enabler of military operations‭, ‬but not as an independent‭ ‬warfighter domain‭. ‬However‭, ‬the current and future challenges brought by near-peer competitors might cause that to change‭.‬

The challenge from Russia

Within its military modernization programs‭, ‬Russia is treating electronic warfare as a priority area‭, ‬in line with the Russian strategy and doctrine to focus on operating in the so-called grey zone between war and peace‭. ‬Electromagnetic warfare can create‭ ‬a contactless fight which disrupts and demoralizes an opponent without physical‭, ‬kinetic contact‭. ‬The information environment is‭ ‬used as an active war fighting domain and this includes the EMS‭, ‬an ideal space to attain an asymmetric advantage over potential opponents‭. ‬

Russia has a significant number of systems for electromagnetic warfare development‭, ‬some of which have been tested or demonstrated in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria‭. ‬But incidents have also been reported beyond conflict zones‭, ‬for example during‭ (‬NATO‭)‬‭ ‬exercises in Norway‭, ‬close to the Russian borders‭. ‬Amongst the available systems to the Russian armed forces are the Borisoglebsk-2‭, ‬the Moskva-1‭ ‬and the Krasukha systems‭, ‬the Samarkand and Rosevnik-AERO electronic warfare systems‭, ‬truck-mounted jammers and radio monitoring systems‭. ‬Russia is able to jam mobile satellite communications and radio navigation‭, ‬disrupt drone attacks‭ (‬including swarms‭), ‬monitor electronic emissions over hundreds of kilometers and spoof signals with a system that mimics or influences Global Navigation Satellite System‭ (‬GNSS‭) ‬signals‭, ‬such as GPS‭. ‬A false target can be created that leads for example to an‭ ‬aircraft away from an original target and naval navigation can be disrupted‭. ‬This leads to manipulated positioning‭, ‬navigation‭ ‬and timing‭ (‬PNT‭) ‬data‭.‬

The challenge from China

China’s People’s Liberation Army‭ (‬PLA‭) ‬has steadily been building up expertise and experience in electromagnetic warfare‭. ‬According to reports‭,‬‭ ‬China is by now at near parity‭, ‬and in some instances has already surpassed the US in this area‭. ‬In line with the PLA’s doctrine based on the concept of‭ ‬“active defense”‭, ‬the electromagnetic spectrum is regarded as an ideal area for proactive‭, ‬offensive and defensive actions in peacetime‭ (‬aimed at preventing undesired conflict‭). ‬Chinese strategies also tend to emphasize integration of various state instruments at hand‭. ‬In‭ ‬this area‭, ‬it means the integration and synchronization of computer networks‭, ‬electronic warfare and kinetic strike capabilities‭. ‬Setting up for the future‭, ‬the Chinese authorities also emphasize modernization through the integration of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence‭ (‬AI‭).‬

According to the 2020‭ ‬Annual Report to the US Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China‭, ‬China’s electronic warfare targets include adversary systems operating in radio‭, ‬radar‭, ‬microwave‭, ‬infrared and optical frequency ranges‭, ‬as well as adversary computer and information systems‭. ‬In 2015‭, ‬China established the Strategic Support Forces‭. ‬This became‭ ‬a new branch of the PLA fusing and further developing its cyber‭-, ‬space‭-, ‬and electronic-warfare abilities and capabilities‭ ‬–‭ ‬putting in practice an innovative concept of integrating these different domains and environments‭. ‬In recent years‭, ‬China has conducted many military training and exercises in jamming‭, ‬anti-jamming operations and other forms of electronic warfare‭.  

‭(‬Future‭) ‬forms of electromagnetic warfare

For the moment‭, ‬jamming and spoofing are the most common forms of electromagnetic warfare‭. ‬Jamming creates noise in frequency bands interfering with antennas‭. ‬Technology to do so is widespread and affordable to many actors‭. ‬Spoofing is another phenomenon that is on the rise‭. ‬With spoofing‭, ‬a receiver is being tricked into misjudging fake signals as real signals‭. ‬An often-quoted example is the GPS spoofing that has taken place in the Port of Shanghai‭. ‬It seems to manipulate the automatic identification system‭ (‬AIS‭) ‬transponders almost all ships carry‭ (‬as required by international law‭) ‬and that broadcast the identity‭, ‬position‭, ‬course‭, ‬and speed of nearby ships‭. ‬In the Port of Shanghai case‭, ‬since 2018‭, ‬several ships have experienced problems with the AIS system‭, ‬for example seeing on the display another vessel coming towards the ship at high speed‭, ‬while the vessel in reality was docked‭. ‬

In the future‭, ‬the integration of AI and machine learning and the further development of directed energy weapons‭, ‬including laser and high-power microwave‭ (‬HPM‭), ‬are likely to play a larger role in electromagnetic warfare‭. ‬AI and machine learning can significantly accelerate the processing of signals‭. ‬Laser weapons have long been a focus of research and development‭, ‬but finally seem to mature for operational use‭. ‬They have the potential to destroy satellites‭, ‬drones or sensors‭. ‬HPM at its turn can disrupt and damage systems by emitting‭ ‬“electromagnetic bursts”‭, ‬with very high-output over a short-period of time‭. ‬Questions of attribution‭, ‬regulation and the‭ (‬il)legality of using such systems to human beings‭, ‬are likely to become more prominent in international debates as well‭. ‬

For the moment‭, ‬the EMS will remain a crucial enabler for modern military action‭. ‬But‭, ‬given the technological developments and‭ ‬the willingness of actors to engage in electromagnetic warfare‭, ‬the trend points towards the spectrum morphing into an actual warfighting domain as well‭. ‬The novel that retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis recently‭ (‬co)authored under the title‭ ‬“2034”‭ ‬is fiction‭. ‬Nonetheless‭, ‬it reflects the current uneasiness about the built-up of electronic warfare capacities by potential US‭ ‬adversaries‭. ‬The novel tells the story of the next World War‭, ‬in which actions in the electromagnetic spectrum play a key role‭ ‬on the strategic‭, ‬operational and tactical levels‭, ‬in every phase of the unfolding conflict‭. ‬

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Saskia van Genugten
‭(‬A Senior Research Fellow in the MENA Peace‭ & ‬Security Prograamme of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy‭ (‬EDA‭) ‬in Abu Dhabi‭)‬

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