How the Army is girding for electronic warfare

As the risks of EW attacks multiply, the Army's C5ISR Center is developing new tools for testing and hardening its battlefield systems.

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There’s no doubt that electronic warfare will become increasingly commonplace. That’s why the Army is vigorously testing its flying platforms, such as the Apache helicopter, to ensure they can withstand both current and evolving threats.

FCW talked with Ralph Troisio, the division chief for Electronic Warfare, Air, and Ground Survivability at Army’s C5ISR Center in Aberdeen, Md., to better understand how the Army is testing these capabilities before an aircraft takes flight.

Before the interview, FCW toured the C5ISR laboratory to see how the experiments are carried out. No photography was allowed, but the experience felt much like being thrust in the middle of a sci-fi adventure: a story-high metal contraption of undulating beams and spinning barbs that gave off vibrations that reverberated through the body -- all of which together help to simulate electronic warfare effects with aircraft. 

The following transcript has been edited for both length and clarity.

FCW: I was interested in the experiment, but I have to be honest, I don't really know what I was looking at. So can you tell me about the project? What's the problem you're trying to solve, and how you're going about that?

Troisio: You were in the aircraft survivability equipment laboratory. What you saw was a Five Degree of Freedom motion table, or Five DOF as we call it, where we are simulating as best as possible the flight profile of "fill in the blank" -- Apache, Chinook, whatever rotary wing aircraft that we have in the Army.

We need to feed in the model information that we get from various sources that are certified, validated within the Department of Defense. And once that's loaded into the Five Degree of Freedom table computer, it will rotate and do motions like a real aircraft.

If you remember, on the top of the Five Degree of Freedom rig, the flat part of the table is where we insert the aircraft's countermeasure/aircraft survivability equipment. In the case that you saw, that was the advanced technology infrared countermeasure system. So while the Five Degrees of Freedom table is doing its motions we also insert what we call scene generation to test threats.

FCW: There's been a lot of talk about the F-35 basically being a computer in the sky. That's where modern aircraft are heading, and obviously that's a huge EW target. This basically tests the integrity of the systems if they were to be subjected to EW, like an electromagnetic pulse situation. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Troisio: Our focus in our science, technology and research and development is utilization of the electromagnetic environment, EW, for the case of platform protection. So the platform could be, you know, a ground vehicle, an asset like a building or it could be, in the Army's case, rotary wing aircraft. Most of the time we deal with ... that's the culmination of research with the Five Degree of Freedom table, like you said, testing the integrity or how well [threats] would work against a particular asset.

FCW: How long has the lab been in existence and what did you learn along the way?

Troisio: We started construction at the lab in 2013. It took a good year to get started in collaboration with a number of partners in the DOD and with the services. We had to get validated flight models in there... It was a little bit of trial and error, a lot of analysis.

FCW: What successes have you had, since it's still in the research phase?

Troisio: I'm an old dog. So back in the '80s when we did do something like this, we literally had to get an aircraft and do flight tests, which is very costly, very time consuming. And if something goes wrong with the aircraft's real equipment, you might have to abandon everything. So it would take a lot of time and a lot of money. Here, we have streamlined the process.

FCW: What milestones are you looking to hit now that you’ve been at this for about six years?

Troisio: As I said, each project stands on its own -- whether it be a piece of aircraft, regular equipment, gear we put on there or a particular asset that we insert. So each time we go through, we'll just continue to improve that process to make it more efficient, more streamlined. There's really no milestones other than to meet the needs and goals of the Army, program manager and end user. We do the best we can to move the R&D.

It's funny because with R&D, you can't say in six months you'll have something, right? Certain things are easy and certain things you may never get to. With the lab that you saw, we have our process down for now, and we continue to improve as we learn more.

FCW: What's been the biggest challenge? From a layman's perspective, the unpredictability of EW seems almost immeasurable.

Troisio: That's a great question. So being that I've been in electronic warfare community for 35 years, it is -- and this is nothing new -- it's a cat and mouse game. There's a threat system out there, and you want to counter with electronic warfare. They build the latest and greatest thing and then, you know, X amount of time later the adversary comes up with something else. My biggest challenge is to know what's available. The latest trending thing is artificial intelligence and machine learning. That's on the table, so is any other technology -- to know and try to utilize all available technology to stay ahead of the game.

FCW: Speaking of emerging tech, where does 5G fit in to EW testing?

Troisio: I can't give you a specific answer, but if there is a place to somehow utilize 5G, we will put that against all the other technologies, and we'll make an assessment based upon effectivity and a cost time to mature technology as we do with all our other projects. 5G will be in consideration with all the other technologies.