The US is still falling behind on electronic warfare, special operators warn

The US is still falling behind on electronic warfare, special operators warn

The U.S. military is “still falling behind” its potential adversaries in electronic warfare, one former three-star special operator said last week at SOF Week conference in Tampa, Florida—and he wasn’t the only one.

“The gap between where the United States should be and where we are, in my judgment, continues to expand not everywhere, but in far too many places,” said Mike Nagata, a retired Army lieutenant general who led special operations in the Middle East and is now a senior vice president for CACI International.

If the Pentagon is to regain its advantage in a warfare domain that is only growing in importance, Nagata said, it needs to get more creative in its use of radio technologies, particularly space-based communications.

Nagata is hardly the first to sound the alarm. In 2022, the National Defense Strategy Commission said that the United States is “losing its advantages in electronic warfare, hindering the nation’s ability to conduct military operations against capable adversaries.”

That sentiment was reinforced by two recently retired special-operations personnel who work in electronic warfare. One reason that Russia is so far ahead, they said, is simply that Moscow chooses to ignore international law against jamming civilian telecommunications. But the Kremlin has also consistently invested and experimented in electromagnetic innovation in decades when U.S. EW efforts were focused on gathering intelligence in the relatively permissive environments of wars in the Middle East.

The war in Ukraine is revealing just how good modern Russian EW gear is—against American weapons. Russian jamming has decreased the “efficiency rate” of GPS-guided Excalibur 155mm artillery from 70 percent to 6 percent, Daniel Patt, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told lawmakers this month. Drones, small-diameter bombs, and some communications systems have proven similarly vulnerable.

At SOF Week, U.S. special operators walked the floors in search of answers. Officials with U.S. Special Operations Command’s Tactical Information Systems told industry representatives they want help for two key programs. The first, the Satellite Deployable Node program, helps connect troops on the battlefield to space-based datalinks. 

The second, the Tactical Local Area Network program, aims to put the computing power of entire server racks into a more portable form, which could help operators in the field find unjammed frequencies to use.

“Both these programs are largely dependent on commercial-off-the-shelf equipment. Therefore, we’re at the mercy of you guys to make things smaller, lighter and faster,” said the first official. 

He might also have said “cooler and less power-hungry,” to hide them from enemy sensors.

One company already working with the broader international special operations community (but declined to say SOCOM specifically) is GoTenna, a mobile mesh network that uses radio to allow short, low-energy communications bursts for chat, messaging, and location. 

“One of the problems that we realized from discussions with this community was that those are high-energy signatures, particularly [satellite communications.] Starlink and Starshield [the military version of Starlink] are all high-energy systems,” said Chris Boyd, GoTenna’s Vice President of Product

The GoTenna unit, about the size of a sunglasses case, can connect satellite or cellular networks, allowing communications at vast distances at low power (at least from the perspective of the operator trying to remain invisible). Company officials offered a demonstration in which two users, some 532 miles apart, connected over a 7-kilohertz, 100-watt channel. The operator can also select or move around the spectrum to find empty channels and unused wavelengths. 

Creative workarounds like that will be key to using high-energy satellite communications in a way that won’t get troops targeted. And SOCOM is eager to acquire more satellite communications. 

“We’re looking at many variants, looking for redundancy,” a second official said, adding that such satellites might fly in geostationary, medium-Earth, or low-Earth orbits.  “You’ll see some offerings in the next few months coming out…Gone are the days that we used to operate SATCOM from a fixed location. We are now extending that to a moving platform on the way to the objective, which is really changing the landscape of how we do communications.”

But SOCOM isn’t looking to use space for just communications. The command already has its own small satellite, called MISR, to collect signals intelligence, and it is looking to create more SOCOM-specific satellites. 

“This is really a demonstration of SOF-unique payloads to look at taking some of the systems from all the other [program management] shops and looking at how you would migrate those to space,” said the second official. 

Said Nagata, mastering low-earth-orbit satellite communications is crucial to U.S. military operations in the face of Russian electromagnetic interference. But perhaps the two most important things that the United States can do is simply innovate the way it acquires things and better incentivize the military to take more risks, he said. 

“The U.S. government, particularly its leadership—from senior military officers all the way to civilian policymakers–we have to be willing to take more risk in experimenting with, adopting and employing new technologies. We will invite failure along the way. But if you’re not willing to fail, you’re not going to succeed.”

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