Modern society is enormously dependent on electronic communication and data-sharing. If those connections are severed, cellphones become useless. Business operations stutter. Normal life is at risk of grinding to a halt.
The same applies to the U.S. military. Secure voice communications and data-sharing enable its successful operations. But our major potential adversaries, Russia and China, are devoting great energy to developing jamming technologies to cripple our military’s communication channels. Experts voiced concern on the issue last month during a national conference on electronic warfare in Washington, D.C.
Our military, they warned, has far to go in adequately training personnel to deal with the threat.
Among the common shortcomings in U.S. military training: Troops often keep their cellphones on, giving away their precise location. Units regularly forget to have backup plans if their primary communications are jammed. If they do switch to backup channels, personnel at the other end often forget to listen to them. If jammers do succeed in shutting down communications during training exercises, the jamming is usually called off in short order so that operations can proceed unencumbered.
“A real adversary like Russia or China would exploit such failings mercilessly,” the BreakingDefense news service reported in an article about the conference.
There’s an additional, major complication for electronic warfare training: Federal regulatory bodies rightly set strict limits on electronic jamming in order to protect civilian homes, businesses and airline operations. To operate within such limits, military personnel might need to dial down a 1,000-watt jammer to 50 during a training exercise, for example.
Just as training exercises can involve cumbersome complications such as gas masks and protective suits against chemical attacks, the same should go for learning how to maintain combat operations in the face of enemy jamming, Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Poole told BreakingDefense. Poole is with the Joint Electronic Warfare Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, under the U.S. Strategic Command.
“You’re going to face those conditions and (can’t) wish it away,” Poole said. “Russia’s not going to turn off the jamming.”
New investments in electronic warfare technologies can help, and the new $1.3 billion StratCom headquarters includes improved facilities for electronic warfare. StratCom has overall authority on the military’s electronic warfare planning. U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a former commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, has obtained funding for an electronic warfare office for the Air Force, which has lagged in building up its assets in that regard. Simulation technology also can offer benefits for training.
Even with such steps, significant improvement is doubtful without big-picture, coordinated planning among the military services and the broad acknowledgment that electronic warfare concerns deserve the same priority given to other aspects of military training.
Generation after generation, we see that war is serious business, indeed. In the 21st century, neglecting electronic warfare will only put our fighting men and women at needless risk.