In this world of peer competition, peer comparisons are natural.
All elements of national power are measured in these moments. Economic power, energy independence, and diplomacy…military capabilities are under scrutiny too. While recognized as important yet undervalued and insufficiently understood, a key one is electronic warfare (EW).
So, how is the Unites States doing compared to our peers in the EW spectrum today? Not great.
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John E. Hyten (who has arguably spent more time focused on strategic threats at the four-star rank than any other current military leader) has highlighted Electronic Warfare as a critical warfighting domain. In numerous public forms, Hyten has emphasized the key to all domain operations is spectrum superiority and, specifically, the role electronic warfare plays in delivering “information advantage.”
Hyten’s views are not unique, but his sense of urgency is compelling. And, in his seat with the Joint Chiefs – along with his experience as the Commander of Strategic Command – he offers a crucial global view of Joint Force warfighting enablers.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also signaled the strategic importance of EW through his ‘Integrated Deterrence’ concept. If the goal is to cause an enemy to pause rather than immediately turn to force or coercion to achieve national strategic objectives, Integrated Deterrence throw weight is enhanced and magnified with the inclusion of relevant electronic warfare capability across a coalition force. This creates the opportunity for the other elements of national power such as economic, energy, and diplomacy to gain and sustain traction (especially when in concert with allies).
My personal experience in the F/A-18, operating and commanding from the squadron to the fleet level, speaks to the critical importance of electronic warfare. I've witnessed how EW investments in one platform can provide value across the Joint domains in which that single system is operated, especially if the Joint operators understand how to employ the spectrum superiority tools. Even the capabilities of our most modern platforms, such as Joint Strike Fighter, benefit from an EW action plan.
This is specifically important in the South and East China Seas, where the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) are aggressively executing anti-access/area denial strategies to thwart U.S. and partner nation’s movements inside their declared “nine-dash line” area. In this strategic region of the world, our freedom to navigate the electromagnetic spectrum is being challenged. An urgent example is the newly deployed Chinese J-16D electronic warfare aircraft which specializes in electronic reconnaissance, jamming, and attack on enemy radars and communication systems. It’s based on the existing Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK platform and wields the latest avionics, AESA radars, and integrated electronic warfare suites with pods optimized for different radio frequencies.
These advancements in sensors, radars and comprehensive electronic warfare suites are leading to massive and rapid modernization of Chinese coastal and ship-borne air defense systems. With sophisticated electronic protection (EP) and high-performance sensors, these systems are becoming a major threat to U.S. aircraft onboard our Carrier Strike Groups. As a result, our joint forces, including the F/A-18s in our Carrier Air Wings, need rapid updates with the latest offensive and defensive EW technology to maintain the critical advantage at the tactical edge. Otherwise, our forces will be hard-pressed to defeat the advanced radars, agile sensors, and weapons being fielded by these threats. Should PLA’s current, rapid pace continue unchecked, it will further shift the regional balance and damage our national interest.
On July 15, the U.S. Department of Defense signed the Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy's Implementation Plan (EMSSS I-Plan), which elevated the importance of electromagnetic spectrum in air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace operations. Although this is a step in the right direction, senior Pentagon leadership still predicts a two-year glide path to fix electronic warfare. This falls far short of the urgency that is required to 1) shore up our existing electronic warfighting capacity and capability and 2) develop, preferably in parallel, the cutting-edge capability that keeps the current force relevant to peer threats we face. The traditional acquisition approach of concept development, requirement definition, and PPBE funding won't deliver the needed velocity to match, much less outpace our peer competitors.
To overcome these realities, the U.S. needs to consider out-of-the-box solutions. The attention leaders like General Hyten and Secretary Austin have directed toward Electronic Warfare must be amplified by the Service Departments; each should develop their own unique EW requirements, but with full transparency to each other as well as the Joint Staff, accelerating the JROC process. According to the Congressional Research Service report from July 2021, the EW RDT&E and procurement funding requests have steadily declined since FY2019. This trend must be reversed.
Finally, of all the parties with skin in the EW game, Congress is most important.
Key Congressional staff should participate in regular requirements assessments with the Services to ensure they have full insights into the broad spectrum of emerging capabilities. It is also paramount that the Department of Defense budget is executed efficiently while providing authorities with quick and frequent EW suite upgrades.
By improving electronic warfare modernization, we'll advance the effectiveness of current, fielded weapons as well as those in concept, design, and initial production. Virtually every weapon - and the weapons systems that support the employment of those weapons - is enhanced with electronic warfighting capability. If done properly, electronic warfare will be a significant benefit to every aspect of our military national power; from the protection of logistics systems, through passive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and Command and Control, to the effectiveness of our kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, providing a compound return across the entire Department of Defense budget.
The U.S. cannot afford the cost and time to fix everything, but prioritizing electronic warfare as senior Pentagon leadership has requested, America can sustain the high ground and achieve Spectrum Superiority in even the most challenging warfighting environments.
If conflict breaks out among peer competitors, America will fight with the force deployed at the tactical edge. Currently, those forces do not have the best electronic warfare assets available, and the time to deliver those is now.
ADM Scott Swift (USN, Ret.)
ADM Scott Swift (USN, Ret.)served in the U.S. Navy for more than 40 years, rising from his commission through the Aviation Reserve Officer Candidate program to become a Navy light attack and strike fighter pilot. He commanded at all levels, including F/A-18 weapons school, aircraft carrier-based squadrons, Carrier Air Wing, Carrier Strike Group, the U.S. Seventh Fleet forward deployed to Japan, finally completing his uniformed career as the 35th Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet in 2018. ADM Swift has been recognized as the commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet Landing Signal Officer of the Year; was presented the Commander Michael G. Hoff Award as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Attack Aviator of the Year; and is entitled to wear the Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, and Air Medal with Combat V, along with various other personal, unit and service awards. Since his retirement, ADM Swift has served as a MIT Center for International Studies Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow, MIT Research Affiliate, Senior Fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis, Adjunct Professor at the Naval War College and as a board member of the US Naval Institute. The views and opinions presented in the article are ADM Smith’s alone and not representative of any of the organizations he is or has been associated with.