The Invisible Battlefield: A Technology Strategy for US Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
US Marines formed as an Electronic Warfare Support Team with 2nd Radio Battalion, II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, near Setermoen, Norway, March 14, 2020. (US Marine Corps).
US Marines formed as an Electronic Warfare Support Team with 2nd Radio Battalion, II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, near Setermoen, Norway, March 14, 2020. (US Marine Corps).

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Executive Summary

The electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is a uniquely challenging environment for military operations. Unlike objects physically moving through the air or along the ground or sea, electromagnetic energy travels at the speed of light and cannot be easily contained by walls, boundaries, or exclusion zones. As a result, military EMS activities such as sensing, communications, and electromagnetic warfare (EW) are difficult to separate from one another or from civilian users. The constraints on military EMS access will only grow with the need to allocate spectrum to 5G mobile communications, expanded Wi-Fi coverage, and ubiquitous sensing and communications on vehicles and consumer products.

Adversaries, most prominently the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation, are also countering US military operations in the EMS. They are using passive sensors and jammers to exploit the dependence of expeditionary US forces on active radars for air defense and long-range radio frequency (RF) communications for command and control (C2). As the “home team” in most likely military conflicts, US adversaries can rely to a greater degree on wired communications, multistatic and passive sensing, and their understanding of local conditions to gain an advantage in a highly contested electromagnetic environment.

Addressing challenges to US EMS operations will become more difficult as defense budgets come under pressure from costs to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, respond to economic recession, and service the growing national debt. Given the growing variety of adversary countermeasures and diverse demands for commercial spectrum, attempting to modify or replace Department of Defense (DoD) EMS systems so they avoid specific threats and civilian encroachments is likely to be unaffordable and continually late to need.

DoD’s forecast-centric planning approach, embodied in the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS), is ill-suited to identify capabilities that solve DoD’s EMS challenges in a fiscally constrained and technologically dynamic environment. Forecast-centric planning bases new requirements on the anticipated gaps between capabilities needed to execute desired concepts in future operations and a military force’s current or projected capabilities. This analytic approach depends on assumptions regarding the scenarios in which conflict is likely to occur, the capabilities and tactics to be used by opponents, and the probable actions of US allies and partners. The need to make multiple, interdependent assumptions reduces the accuracy of forecast-centric planning, and when assumptions prove incorrect, budget constraints could reduce the force’s ability to adapt.

To regain enduring EMS superiority under today’s conditions of technological and fiscal uncertainty, DoD will need to adopt a decision-centric planning approach in which adaptability is a more important metric than predicted performance against a particular threat in a specific scenario. In contrast with forecast-centric planning’s mobilization of resources to efficiently develop a single solution, decision-centric planning would seek to preserve options for as long as possible within a mission or over a competition. Within operational timeframes, the optionality afforded by a more adaptable force could allow commanders to make faster and more effective decisions, while the complexity imposed on the enemy would degrade its decision-making process. Over strategic and industrial timescales, increasing the adaptability of military systems speeds responses to adversary innovations or enables capability developers to leap ahead of an opponent’s advancements.

Adaptability, however, is not sufficient to gain an advantage if the option space is not centered on advantageous capabilities. For example, high-power broadcast radios or scanning search radars can be made highly adaptable using artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled controls, but their risk of counter-detection makes them a poor choice for operations against revisionist powers like the PRC that can deploy numerous distributed passive radiofrequency (RF) sensors in areas where they intend to initiate conflict. This study will use the technique of net assessment to center the option space for new EMS technologies on areas that exploit fundamental asymmetries between the US military and its main competitors.


DoD will need to focus its efforts on concepts and capabilities that provide US forces the greatest and most enduring advantages against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Russian Armed Forces while mitigating US disadvantages. The net assessment methodology identifies these opportunities based on asymmetries between US and opposing militaries; the asymmetries emerging from this study are described below.

Geography: The PRC and Russian militaries will likely be the home team in future military confrontations, given their ongoing gray-zone operations and stated interests in neighboring countries such as Taiwan for the PRC and the Baltic countries for Russia. As a result, the PLA and Russian Armed Forces can rely to a greater degree than the expeditionary US military on wired communications and can employ passive and multistatic sensors that require multiple networked arrays and a sophisticated understanding of the local electromagnetic operating environment.

Technological innovation: The PLA’s concept of system destruction warfare requires development of countermeasures that address specific nodes of US systems of systems. The PLA can leverage the PRC’s robust commercial electronics industrial base to develop new capabilities, enabling it to field a comprehensive and changing collection of EMS systems. Russia lacks the PRC’s military budgets and fusion with civilian industry, leading the Russian Armed Forces to incrementally adapt existing EMS systems.

DoD largely pursues two tracks in new EMS technologies, new capabilities that are designed to support innovative operational concepts, and improvements to existing systems that counter new adversary capabilities. Because new concepts are not associated with existing major programs, the DoD approach results in the majority of US EMS investment going toward incremental advancements of legacy systems that chase adversary initiatives rather than toward new innovations that create dilemmas for opponents.

Employment of artificial intelligence (AI): The PRC, Russian, and US militaries are all aggressively pursuing AI as an element of their overall force development, but with different priorities for operational systems compared to management and support capabilities. Whereas DoD has prioritized AI incorporation in operational systems, the PLA and Russian Armed Forces have focused AI implementation on C2, management support systems, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

EMS capability development: As noted above, an asymmetry exists in technological innovation between the PLA’s comprehensive systems of systems that target US battle networks, the Russian military’s more incremental approach, and DoD’s efforts to modernize existing systems while fielding capabilities for disruptive new operational concepts. This asymmetry extends to each competitor’s efforts to develop and field EMS capabilities as well.

EMS capability governance: Significant asymmetries exist between the DoD and its competitors regarding the organizations that govern EMS capabilities. The PLA developed a unified governance structure for EMS policy and capability requirements, which parallels the Russian Armed Forces’ EW Commander and staff. The US military, in contrast, divides responsibilities for doctrine and strategy between US Strategic Command, the EW Executive Committee (EXCOM), and the EMSO Cross-Functional Team (CFT). Moreover, DoD does not give any of these bodies the authority to direct EMS-related spending or acquisition, reducing their ability to implement policy.

Deployment of EW capabilities: EW comprises electronic attack (EA), electronic support (ES) to monitor the EMS, and electronic protection measures to defend EMS systems from enemy EA. Although the PLA, Russian Armed Forces, and DoD all field operational- and tactical-level EW capabilities through their service branches, the scale and depth of deployment varies significantly. Because of the value they place on EW as an element of their respective military strategies and operational concepts, the PRC and Russian militaries equip units with offensive and defensive EW systems and personnel down to the ground force company, aviation squadron, and naval or paramilitary ship level. US EW capabilities are deployed to varying echelons depending on the service, but generally are held at higher levels of command than in the PLA or Russian Armed Forces.

Electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO): The US military introduced the EMSO concept to create a coherent framework for EW operations to control the EMS and EMBM to coordinate EMS activities such as EW, sensing, and communications. The PRC and Russian militaries do not have publicly released concepts for unified EMS operations, and largely treat EMS control through EW separately from communications, sensing, and spectrum management activities.

Technology Priorities

Technology priorities emerging from asymmetries identified by the net assessment are organized into four main categories: capabilities enabling DoD to obviate, rather than overcome, fundamental challenges; capabilities that undermine adversary advantages; capabilities that turn challenges into opportunities; and capabilities that exploit existing US strengths.

The net assessment methodology accepts risk because it does not attempt to solve every potential future capability gap. This study recommends that DoD EMS systems efforts prioritize the following areas to establish an enduring advantage within a relevant time and the US military’s likely budget constraints.

Capabilities to obviate, rather than overcome, fundamental challenges: The PLA’s concept of system destruction warfare uses the PRC’s fusion of military and civil sectors to create a comprehensive set of EMS countermeasures designed to target key US battle network nodes and platforms. Continuing to engage in an extended move-countermove competition with the PLA is costly and time-consuming. Therefore, US EMS capability development should focus on adaptive capabilities that can reduce the predictability of US battle network operations.

Capabilities that undermine adversary advantages: The PRC and Russian home team advantage could be countered in part by new technologies that improve the EP capabilities of US forces and reduce their risk of counterdetection. Specifically:
* Passive and multistatic electromagnetic (EM) sensing: US forces, as the away team, will need to reduce their EM emissions and signatures across the RF, infrared (IR), and visual spectra to avoid counter-detection and targeting by PRC or Russian forces.
* Passive and multistatic missile defense: To reduce the vulnerability of missile defense systems, DoD will need to field passive and multistatic sensors that can detect and track subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic weapons.
* Networked ES: Passive receiving arrays need to securely communicate with one another or with multistatic emitters to enable more precise sensing.
* Networked EA: Systems that conduct high-risk EA operations inside contested areas will need to be expendable or inexpensive enough to be attritable. Small and cheap unmanned EA platforms can rely on proximity and coherently combined transmissions to make up for their lower power—an approach that places a premium on secure networking.
* Low Probability of Intercept/Low Probability of Detection (LPI/LPD) active monostatic sensing: As an expeditionary force, the US military may have difficulty sustaining multiple passive sensor systems in position to support operations like missile defense, and therefore will need active radars to achieve the necessary precision for engagements. Radars, however, will need features that reduce their likelihood of revealing the defensive system’s exact location.
* Multifunction ES and EA capabilities: The cost and complexity of using larger numbers of distributed ES and EA vehicles could be reduced in part by ensuring that DoD EW systems are able to perform either sensing or EA operations.

Capabilities that turn challenges into opportunities: As noted above, the PRC and Russian military’s focus on potential vulnerabilities of US battle networks could be turned into a disadvantage if US force packages, configurations, and operational concepts are less predictable using technologies such as:
* Adaptive, wideband EMS systems: The US military could dramatically accelerate its EMS capability move-countermove cycle by fielding sensor, communication, and EW systems that can operate over multiple gigahertz of frequency spectrum and react to adversary operations in real time by developing and employing new courses of action using AI-enabled algorithms.
* Automated EW system reprogramming: Accelerating automated and AI-enabled reprogramming would improve the adaptability of systems that are not yet able to react in real time.
* Decision support aids and communications management systems: DoD could turn the challenge of contested communications environments into an advantage by giving junior commanders decision support systems that help them develop courses of action in the absence of connectivity with senior leaders and staffs.

Capabilities that exploit existing US strengths: The US military has adopted new approaches to EW and EMSO, supported by new training and capability integration approaches, that could substantially increase the adaptability and complexity of US operations. These efforts should be accelerated by prioritizing relevant technologies:
* Virtual and constructive EW/EMSO environments: The US military could exploit its investments in live, virtual, and constructive (LVC)-based EMSO experimentation and training by accelerating the introduction of virtual and constructive tools and environments at each organizational level, especially at home stations to support ongoing training and experimentation.
* Electromagnetic battle management (EMBM) systems, including AI: The US military could capitalize on the PLA’s and Russian Armed Forces’ lack of EMSO doctrine and exploit the emerging generation of more adaptable EMS capabilities by accelerating the fielding of operationally useful EMBM systems.
* Open architecture hardware standards: Combined with a move away from monolithic, multi-mission EMS platforms, increased adoption of open architectures in US military platforms and vehicles would allow use of more modular EMS systems that could be more easily exchanged and modified.
* Open architecture software tools: Another approach to open architecture is promoting interoperability between systems. DoD should accelerate the fielding of toolkits like the System-of-systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems (STITCHES) that build software interfaces on demand to allow disparate networks to communicate.


DoD is at a crossroads in development of EMS-related technologies. The 2020 EMS Superiority Strategy and concepts for EMSO and EMBM advance new approaches to regain an advantage by improving the adaptability of US EMS capabilities both during and between operations. The resulting expansion of options could allow DoD to accelerate or break out of today’s move-countermove EMS technology innovation cycle.

Making the shift to more dynamic, agile, and flexible EMS operations, however, will require accepting risk in traditional methods of controlling the spectrum. The US military lacks the time and resources to gain EMS superiority against PRC and Russian forces using a symmetric system vs. system approach. By the time DoD catches up, the PLA or Russian Armed Forces could exploit their EMS advantage to support aggression against their neighbors. DoD’s choice is whether to accept continued erosion of its edge in the EMS or to make bold bets on the technologies most likely to circumvent or reverse the inherent advantages enjoyed by its great power competitors.

The technology priorities described in this report represent the US military’s best opportunity to establish enduring EMS superiority. They are all being pursued by DoD to varying degrees, but most are merely being sustained rather than accelerated in support of a new approach to EMSO. To reverse trends of the last three decades and give the PRC and Russia challenges to address, funding and attention will need to shift to these new priorities and away from legacy programs that helped win the Cold War.

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