The electromagnetic spectrum is congested, contested, and constrained. The new Pentagon strategy stops short of designating the spectrum as a warfighting domain, but emphasizes the need to find new ways to share spectrum with civilian users. Here, Airmen set up a satellite dish during Exercise Heavy Rain in France in January 2020. Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer
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Strategy & Policy

Dec. 1, 2020

Parsing the New Electromagnetic Strategy

The Pentagon’s new electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) warfare strategy seeks major changes in how the U.S. military will fight in the EMS realm, calling for military and commercial entities to share the spectrum and for a potential future EMS combatant command. 

While the strategy describes EMS as a “critical battlespace,” it does not declare it a discrete warfare “domain,” as some experts have urged for years. Instead, it continues to view the EMS as enabling combat in air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. An implementation plan is due in April 2021.

The “Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy,” unveiled Oct. 29 and 18 months in the making, calls on the military to dynamically shift frequencies and to “hide” in civilian bands to complicate jamming and eavesdropping. It acknowledges that billions of personal devices and thousands of commercial satellites are competing for bandwidth and argues for interleaving the military and commercial uses rather than reserving specific frequency bands for each. Some bands previously off-limits to commerce may be available in the near future; the Pentagon strategy lists bolstering economic growth among its goals.    

Based on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and built by the Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Cross-Functional Team (CFT), the new strategy supersedes the Pentagon’s 2013 EMS and 2017 electronic warfare strategies. The CFT was created by the 2019 defense bill to address electronic warfare, but expanded to include the whole EMS. 

Artificial intelligence could enable dynamic frequency changing, but moving in and out of today’s commercial bands would require the Federal Communication Commission to change its rules. Frequency-changing AI software would be employed by military and commercial entities alike, with AI deciding second by second which users get access to which frequencies. Fixed-frequency systems would eventually be replaced. 

The strategy represents “a unique opportunity” to redesign spectrum warfare for “multi-domain fighting,” said a Pentagon official at the strategy’s roll out. New tactics and technologies will better thwart enemies and defend against attacks in cyberspace, he said, calling for better means to “patrol” EMS.    

The strategy sets five goals: develop superior EMS capabilities; evolve to an agile, fully integrated EMS infrastructure; pursue Total Force EMS readiness; secure partnerships in EMS; and establish effective EMS governance. 

The strategy does not mention the joint all-domain command and control concept (JADC2), but JADC2 depends on success in EMS warfare, another official said. 

Threats to the military’s ability to use the spectrum are constrained by which parts of the spectrum are available, the Pentagon said, citing the “three C’s: ”the spectrum is contested by more enemies; congested by frequency crowding; and constrained by which spectrum is available for use. “EMS vulnerabilities have become increasingly sophisticated and easily attainable,” the strategy states. The U.S. must preserve its military’s “freedom of action” while also addressing the voracious commercial appetite for bandwidth.

Biggest Challenges

The biggest challenge in the strategy will not necessarily be hardware or even AI, but establishing “common links to coordinate and integrate certain capabilities,” said Glenn Carlson, president-elect of the Association of Old Crows, the electronic warfare association. Such links are needed to integrate “not just across our services, but across allied services.” The other main hurdle, he said, will be training EMS practitioners across the force.

An Old Crows issue brief released in mid-November said the Defense Department “simply does not have established standards of training, nor the sheer number of personnel currently to achieve” the new Pentagon Joint EMS doctrine. It seeks to ensure “all personnel are indoctrinated and trained at the appropriate level on EMS core concepts that enable an EMS maneuver mindset.”

“It is not simply about adding personnel,” the issue brief continued, but about establishing required skill sets, training standards, and measures of progress.

“We don’t have enough people out there filling billets,” said Ken Miller, director of outreach for the Old Crows. “We don’t have the expertise, we don’t have a way to train them up through the services and in support of [Combatant Commanders].”

A Pentagon official said DOD recognizes that U.S. Strategic Command lacks the “manpower and structure to accomplish all of the things they need to do within the electromagnetic spectrum.” While STRATCOM owns responsibility for EMS today, “the operational level needs to be looked at,” the official said.

Undecided at this stage is the “governance” of EMS. 

The Old Crows’ Carlson said DOD will have to choose. “Should this be under a unified command? Should it be under the Chairman?” he asked. “I could argue either way. But because it goes across all the services, the higher, the better.” 

The implementation plan should determine “where is the proper home for this.”

In fact, the Senate version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization bill would make EMS Operations “Chairman-controlled activity,” Miller noted, but it’s not clear if that change will survive the House-Senate conference.

“We’re open to alternatives,” Miller said. The goal should be to have electromagnetic spectrum operations “as close as possible to the warfighter, so … they can respond to threats immediately, and also have … reachback.”

In September, the Pentagon’s chief information officer (CIO) was designated as the lead for executive governance of EMS activities. But the Old Crows’ position is that DOD needs a separate organization “to grow, integrate and manage the EMS enterprise across the joint force with the authority to hold COCOMs and the military services accountable, and coordinate with the CIO to ensure a uniform, DOD-wide approach to EMS superiority.”

A Domain … or Not

Air Force Brig. Gen. Darrin P. Leleux, deputy director for the Secretary of Defense’s electromagnetic spectrum operations cross-functional team, is leading the implementation effort. He explained the “current thinking” that EMS “is an enabler for all the other five domains” at a C4ISRNET online event Nov. 12. “For example, you can’t have air superiority without EMS superiority,” he said. 

The Pentagon appeared on the verge of declaring EMS a fighting domain as recently as 2015, but instead bestowed that status on cyber and formed a number of joint organizations to prosecute electronic warfare.

“The Pentagon has punted on the issue,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret.) David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. DOD “does not want to add another domain to its lexicon, whether—by definition—the EMS actually is one or not.” 

Deptula said the case can be made that cyber is a “subset” of EMS, a “form of electronic warfare,” and that designating EMS as a fighting domain—and not merely as a supporting element—“could provide a firm, logic-based foundation upon which the cyber and electronic warfare communities could build a truly electromagnetic-savvy warfighting force.” 

Recognizing EMS as a domain “would bring focus to the multiple, often incongruent, and disconnected electronic warfare and cyber operations ongoing” among the services, combatant commanders, and defense agencies, he said. Deptula was the first Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  

The Old Crows’ Carlson said that while EMS likely is a fighting domain, designating it as such is probably more than the Pentagon can handle at this point.  

“Standing up the Space Force” is a heavy task, he said, and designating EMS as a fighting domain would incur costs and a level of effort that might exceed the Department’s ability to manage, he said. Stating the need for EMS superiority “and how it overlays the other domains, that’s a big step forward and a real positive step,” he said. The domain argument is not over, merely postponed.

Leleux said there’s no budget associated yet with EMS implementation, and the plan will not be completed until after the fiscal 2022 budget is submitted to Congress. Yet as the implementation team develops the tasks that must be accomplished to bring the strategy to reality, his team will have to develop “a sense of cost.” For each task, he wants to know “the resources necessary to accomplish that task, and the risk associated with not accomplishing that task.” This will inform the trade-offs as these bubble up to budgetary discussions.

Rethinking how spectrum is shared is still another issue. Miller said, “There is obviously a lot of discussion about whether our antiquated way of dividing up the spectrum—auctioning it off to commercial—is the way to go … and whether we need to move toward more dynamic spectrum sharing, or other models that might give DOD a little bit more leverage in how we use spectrum.” 

The issue has Congress’ attention. Right now, “the way we meet commercial demands for 5G and preserve the bands of spectrum we need for military purposes … isn’t the best way,” Miller added. 

EMS Wing and Higher

The Air Force will create a new Spectrum Warfare Wing in 2021, said Air Combat Command Chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly, in an interview with Air Force Magazine. The new unit will fall under the Air Force Warfare Center and will be the first-ever USAF wing focused on EMS. Kelly said the unit will be built up from the 53rd Electronic Warfare Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. That unit already does “a lot of our work across the spectrum” and provides expertise for programming labs and “the sensing grid,” he said.

China’s and Russia’s EMS capabilities “keep me up night,” Kelly said, more than their advancing kinetic capabilities, stealth aircraft, or precision navigation capabilities.

“Their ability to jam across” EMS, “wherever they choose to, is significant,” Kelly said. Adversaries have developed jamming capabilities from “extremely low frequencies” up through high, very high, and ultra-high frequencies, and the Air Force’s sensing and command and control bands, he said. They also have good jamming capabilities in typical radar frequencies such as the X, K, Ku, Ka bands, and in the infrared and ultraviolet bands, he added. 

These advances are worrying, Kelly said, especially in light of adversary capabilities in 5G and quantum computing, and they squeeze the Air Force’s ability to use the spectrum freely.

Deptula said what’s really needed is an Information Warfare major command to integrate the effects of ISR, cyber, and EW. The quicker it happens, “the quicker it will be able to adapt to the information age.”

Recent high-level discussions “on establishing an undersecretary of defense for Information, that would have oversight of the DOD’s information warfare portfolio” he said, is “welcome news …and long overdue.” Such an official would have purview over “strategies, policies, acquisition, budget, and international engagement that would include the Department’s cyber, EMS, and influence operations portfolios,” according to Deptula. It would be a great step toward “assembling a concerted approach to achieve information superiority.”