The battle for eastern Ukraine shows how the pace of innovation in electronic warfare is picking up.
On Wednesday, Army Secretary Eric Fanning announced a new Rapid Capabilities Office to accelerate the development of cyber, electronic warfare, and position-and-timing gear. Read that to mean: outfitting troops to stand up to the IT and EW prowess of adversaries like Russia, according to one expert who spoke to Defense One.
“This office will address capability gaps that we’re seeing in real time, right now from our commanders in the field,” said a statement from Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, who will direct operations for the office. “Our adversaries are modernizing at a rapid rate, and in some cases, our capabilities are inadequate to keep up. To maintain our edge, it’s vital that we can evolve existing and new technology at a pace that keeps it relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s conflicts.”
That rapid technological progression is on full display in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian soldiers have been battling Russian-backed forces since 2014. For example, Russian-backed separatists have used EW and GPS-spoofing to jam and misdirect the drones Ukrainian troops use to scope out enemy positions.
"Over the past several years, we've learned from what we've seen from Russia and Ukraine, and later in Syria, and from the different capabilities they've brought to the battlefield," Fanning said. "We've seen the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities and how they provided Russian forces a new degree of sophistication."
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said there is much overlap between what soldiers in Ukraine are seeing and what the new capabilities office is focusing on.
“My guess is … that after 15 years of doing largely counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East, the Army is now taking a look at how it would do large force-on-force conflict in a place like Europe," he said. "One of the things we have seen the Russians use fairly effectively is electronic warfare in eastern Ukraine. I think there are some lessons that the U.S. military is extracting from what the Russian military has done in the Donbass region.”
Various training missions have given U.S. troops the chance to talk with Ukranian soldiers about this new kind of battlefield. For example, members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team deployed there last year for Operation Fearless Guardian.
“The U.S. Army has been doing this training program for the Ukrainian national guard and Ukrainian Army,” Pifer said. “My guess is that the U.S. trainers are actually learning quite a bit from their Ukrainian counterparts in terms of the sorts of tactics the Russian Army is now using.”
The pace of innovation in EW—in the form of novel new waveforms that can disrupt an adversary’s electronics, paint enemy stealth aircraft, etc.—has surprised many in the military. That’s because EW innovation has become less and less a hardware challenge and more of a software challenge. You can make a new weapon as quickly as your algorithm can pull together a new waveform from the spectrum. But the military, too often, still procures EW assets the same way it buys jets and boats: slowly.
“The software [to defeat new waveforms] may take on the order of months or years, but the effectiveness needs to programmed within hours or seconds," Robert Stein, co-chair of the Defense Science Board’s 2013 EW study, said at an Association of Old Crows event last winter. "If it’s an interaction with a radar and a jammer, for example, sometime, it’s only a microsecond."
Service officials stressed the new office is distinct from the Rapid Equipping Force, which sends warfighters material needed “urgently,” such as new weapons and solar panels for powering remote bases.
“The goal of the Army Rapid Capabilities Office is not to procure systems to outfit the entire Army, but rather to use targeted investments to execute strategic prototyping, concept evaluation and limited equipping—especially in areas where technology progresses rapidly," Katrina McFarland, the Army acquisition executive, said in a statement. "It will help commanders and soldiers in the field today, while building an advantage for those who will follow in their footsteps."
“If we want to operate in an environment where we are leading and causing our adversaries to react to us, we need to take risks,” Rapid Capabilities Office Director Douglas K. Wiltsie said in a statement. “The Army Rapid Capabilities Office is designed to take those technology risks, and to give us the agility to incorporate disruptive capabilities quickly when they can make a difference for our soldiers.”