Cyber Defense

US spectrum warfare strategy stresses flexibility

Increasing reliance on scarce electromagnetic spectrum is prompting military planners to rethink their spectrum strategies as conventional tools like electronic warfare merge with cyber operations to become what senior leaders call “spectrum warfare.”

In response, the Defense Department is set to release a new spectrum strategy in November that will place a premium on developing more agile, flexible systems capable of sharing spectrum. “If we don’t do something in the next few years” there won’t be enough spectrum for the U.S. military, warned Stuart Timerman, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Defense Spectrum Organization.

Timerman told an electronic warfare conference on Oct. 30 that the strategy involves “re-tuning” spectrum as demand grows. Once the new spectrum strategy is released, he added, implementation will occur over a “six-month timeframe” as DISA works with the military services to execute the strategy.

The DISA official said a goal of the spectrum strategy will be ensuring access to congested spectrum through techniques like spectrum sharing. With the emergence of cyber operations, the managers of traditional electronic warfare programs have grown increasingly concerned about “congested and contested” spectrum.

DISA has been managing DOD spectrum operations through a joint program called Global Electromagnetic Spectrum Information System. Timerman described the effort as a means to “control spectrum usage over the network.”

Stressing the need for more spectrum sharing as DOD moves off of frequency bands that will be auctioned to commercial wireless providers, Timerman added: “Exclusive-use spectrum [for the military] is not going to be sustainable.”  That means spectrum managers will have to find new ways to “fully utilize all dimensions: frequency, time, space, signal and power.”

In response, the services have begun adjusting to the new spectrum reality though the Joint Electromagnetic System Operations initiative. For example, the Army expects to release its new electronic warfare and spectrum management doctrine by the end of November, according to Col. Charles Ekvall, chief of the Army’s Electronic Warfare Division.

Ekvall said the Army doctrine will seek to link electronic warfare, cyber operations and spectrum management into a new initiative called Cyber Electromagnetic Activities. “CEMA [will be] leveraged to seize, retain and exploit an advantage over adversaries and enemies in both cyberspace and the [electromagnetic spectrum] while simultaneously denying and degrading enemy use” of the spectrum,” Ekvall said.

Spectrum scarcity and budget pressures are together forcing the military services to develop common, electronic warfare systems based on modular designs that can be customized for air, land or sea operations. Ekvall said these integrated electronic warfare suites could be tailored “to your target set.”

The head of the Marine Corps’ electronic warfare branch, Lt. Col. Jason Schuette, agreed that more common systems are needed, but added: “There is no such thing as a silver bullet.”

The services attempted to field integrated electronic warfare systems in the late 1980s, but those efforts fell short of expectations.

Now, spectrum scarcity is forcing the services to find new ways to conduct spectrum warfare as high-profile cyber operations continue to mesh with electronic warfare. “The services continue to field advanced [electromagnetic spectrum] systems without a unifying architecture,” warned Ronald Hahn, a member of Defense Science Board panel examining the future of electronic warfare. 

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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