Pentagon needs to do more to harness the electromagnetic spectrum, lawmakers say

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Tuesday that Russia and China have invested more in electronic warfare capabilities and the DOD needs to put more focus on it.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Tuesday that Russia and China have invested more in electronic warfare capabilities and the DOD needs to put more focus on it. Bill Clark / Getty Images

A bipartisan group of lawmakers who co-chair the Congressional Electromagnetic Warfare Working Group said the Defense Department needs to take more of an active role in enhancing its spectrum use to achieve electromagnetic superiority.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers said on Tuesday that the Pentagon needs to prioritize enhanced access and use of the electromagnetic spectrum to help counter future threats, rather than just relying on Congress to take the lead in bolstering the U.S. military’s capabilities in this space.

Speaking at an event at the Hudson Institute think tank, Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Rick Larsen, D-Wash. and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. — who serve as co-chairs of the Congressional Electromagnetic Warfare Working Group — said lawmakers have often been the driving force in pushing DOD to embrace greater spectrum use, largely through legislative vehicles such as the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. 

With foreign adversaries increasingly fine-tuning their electronic warfare — or EW — capabilities, however, the House members said that the Pentagon needs to take a more active role in establishing dominance in this space, particularly since legislative proposals can be hit or miss. 

“We did not get much done in this particular NDAA when it comes to electromagnetic spectrum operations,” Bacon said about the defense policy bill that passed the House on July 14. But he noted that prior NDAA packages signed into law over the past several years have included amendments focusing on enhancing the Pentagon’s electromagnetic warfare capabilities. 

The Pentagon’s 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy said, in part, that “without the capabilities to assert [Electromagnetic Spectrum] superiority, the nation’s economic and national security will be exposed to undue and significant risk.” The creation of DOD’s strategy was mandated in the fiscal 2019 NDAA

The lawmakers also said that DOD allowed its electromagnetic spectrum operations — or EMSO — to stagnate over the past several decades, which enabled China and Russia to dramatically enhance their own capabilities to a competitive position with the U.S. 

Bacon — a former Air Force Brigadier General — said that, after the Gulf War, “we felt like we didn’t need EW as much anymore,” given the military’s capabilities at the time and recent battlefield success.

“We let things atrophy to a large degree and Russia and China, in many areas, have surpassed us, because they were focused on it,” Bacon said. “So one of the storylines in EW is if you feel like you’re the dominant power, you don’t need EW. If you feel like you’re struggling — you have a hard time getting aircraft over a target and back — then you invest in EW. Russia and China were doing that; we were not.”

To outpace its global rivals, the trio of lawmakers said that the Pentagon needs to invest more consistently in EW capabilities. But the lawmakers also said that funding and focus have not been consistent across the department, often leading to a game of catch-up with adversaries threatening the U.S.’s dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

“It’s feast or famine,” Larsen said about EW- and EMSO-focused funding. “It’s feast when we need it, and we always need it too late because we were in a famine mode.” 

They noted, however, that DOD has begun to place more of an internal priority on establishing and maintaining spectrum dominance, with U.S. Strategic Command planning to stand up a new Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Center — or JEC — to oversee the Pentagon’s EMSO operations before the end of the month.

But even as he praised the impending ribbon cutting for the JEC, Bacon expressed continued concern about “the ability to put military capabilities out in the field,” adding that “it’s a lot of talk.

“I don’t see the output, the actual combat capability output that we need in EW,” Bacon said. “So we’re not there yet. We’re moving.”