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Electronic warfare (EW) is undergoing what is arguably its most broad-based, innovative, and pervasive transformation since the Cold War. Not only is EW regaining the first-tier role it had more than 25 years ago, but it is also joining forces with cyberspace. It is leading the charge to the use of open-systems architectures, and is one of the core ingredients in the Pentagon’s mission to ensure that the United States maintains the long-held “spectrum dominance” that it is in jeopardy of losing. To understand the significance of this paradigm shift, it is important to delve into each of these changes.

The first use of “electronic attack” probably occurred when telegraph wires through which the Federal Army communicated were cut (possibly dispatching the telegrapher in the process). The advent of radio communications and then radar brought EW into the RF domain, which led to a continuing stream of innovations during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and various other conflicts. By the end of the Cold War, EW had become an indispensable military tool.

Fig. 1

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and allied powers “took a breath,” as the all-consuming threat to which they had devoted their energies seemed to have disappeared. As a result, EW funding was significantly reduced for these allies. Of course, the Gulf War in 1990 drove home the point that EW is still essential, and this was further substantiated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; EW played a key role in defeating Iraqi air defenses and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

To advance its goal of maintaining spectrum dominance, which is affected to a large extent by EW, the Pentagon recognized the following:

  • EW will be an increasingly essential asset for conducting every type of conflict or war—on the ground, in the air, and at sea (or even under it). This now includes cyber activities, as well.
  • All assets in every domain must be coordinated with information from their sensors. This information is distributed autonomously based on priority and many other factors to those places where it is needed most, in more or less real time.
  • To be affordable and usable on multiple platforms, EW subsystems must be built from the ground up based on a current open-systems architecture or architectures.

The word “cyber” initially brought to mind gaining access to a network or database through wired connections. So, it took some time for the defense community to understand that the synergy between EW and cyber efforts lies in their ability to complement each other. For example, air-defense systems, command center, and many other vital defense-related facilities are typically networked by a combination of wired and wireless means.

A cyber attack on one or more points in a wired network can disrupt the network at the “back” end long enough for traditional RF-based electronic attacks—such as by jamming or interference—to be employed to disable or deceive the network at the “front” end. This allows kinetic attacks to be used to destroy the network. In the case of wireless command and control networks, an EW system can be used as the delivery method for RF-based cyber attacks.

Many other such scenarios are possible, in which traditional EM-based EW efforts will complement cyber capabilities. Rather than competing for the same attention (funding), they achieve the same overall goal of defeating an adversary by electronic means, but in different ways. In this way, EW and cyber efforts can be equally considered “electronic warfare.”

Success in future battle theaters will require coordinated EW assets and efforts against an adversary wielding similar electronic weapons. Cognitive (adaptive) capability will also be essential in dealing with adversaries developing new and complex threats at an unprecedented pace, thanks in part to the global availability of advanced technology.

Such technology has historically only been available to military users, but is now available on an open market and through ingenious development efforts. The U.S. can no longer rely on capturing signals, analyzing them in a laboratory, and returning in six months with an algorithm to counter them. Electronic countermeasures (ECM) must now be accomplished in the field, and often in seconds.

No EW system, no matter how advanced, can achieve its goals without effective, real-time management of all assets. This especially holds true given the dense EM environments created with radar, EW, communications, and other defense electronics systems; these systems operate simultaneously and requiring precise, complex scheduling of emitters.

Scheduling algorithms will prioritize these threats based on lethality. Swarm algorithms that collectively analyze information from sensors on various platforms, and autonomously make such decisions, will be invaluable. These processing-intensive systems will not only address lethality, but when and where specific types of emitters such as communications and radar signals can operate, and when jamming can be used without becoming interference for a required system.

Open for Business

None of these EW capabilities can be developed, tested, and produced in large quantities within any reasonable budget without an open-systems design approach adopted by all manufacturers. The approach will also result in a cost savings for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), since the commonality of subsystems will reduce the number of single-function, single-platform systems. Ideally, it would allow manufacturers to create subsystems, such as integrated microwave assemblies (IMAs), that can be “mixed and matched” to create more comprehensive multiple-function assemblies within a common form factor.

Of course, some functions will always fall outside the electrical and mechanical parameters or a common module, but the open-systems approach should reduce the number of these “rogue” modules. The OpenRFM initiative from Mercury Systems is currently the only open architecture proposed by industry as a standard-based open-systems approach to RF/microwave subsystem design and fabrication.

The DoD has also embraced open systems through the Army’s Modular Open RF Architecture (MORA), the Navy’s Hardware Open Systems Technologies (HOST), and the Air Force’s Mission System Open Architecture Science and Technology (MOAST) initiative, for which a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) is expected shortly. Major contactors such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have also been demonstrating the Open Mission Systems (OMS) approach sponsored by the Air Force (see figure).

Achieving the performance levels expected for the next generation of EW systems will be a formidable task, but not one without precedent in terms of importance. More advanced EW technologies will be needed to operate in an ever-more-crowded EM environment, and a more cost-effective open system approach will help to achieve the challenging design goals. There is no question that the DoD and the defense industry can achieve new levels of cost-effective EW system performance through the open-system approach—only when.

Peter Reese, Vice President, Applications

Mercury Defense Systems, a business unit of Mercury Systems, Inc., 10855 Business Center Cypress CA 90630; (714) 898-8200

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