US Air Force Looking to Modernize Its EW Capabilities

electronic spectrum
000515-N-4171A-018 Boarding team members from the USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) rappel down cargo containers stacked on the deck of the merchant ship Puerto Cortes, stopped on a routine inspection in the Persian Gulf on May 15, 2000. The Lake Champlain is conducting Military Interdiction Operations in the Persian Gulf to locate suspect merchant vessels possibly violating United Nations embargoes. The Ticonderoga class cruiser is deployed to the Gulf from its homeport of San Diego, Calif. DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Abell, U.S. Navy. (Released) 000524-N-5319A-001 The U.S. Naval Academy's graduating class of 2000 cheers as F/A-18 Hornets from the Blue Angels flight demonstration team streak across the sky during graduation ceremonies in Annapolis, Md., on May 24, 2000. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brien Aho, U.S. Navy. (Released) 000603-N-7355H-001 Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Eubanks works in the blue light of the Electronic Warfare module as he stands the Advanced Combat Direction Systems watch aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) on June 3, 2000. Eubanks, from Dallas, Texas, is a Navy electronic warfare technician. The Kitty Hawk is homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. DoD photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris D. Howell, U.S. Navy. (Released)

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Adversaries of the US have noted the opportunity to disrupt U.S. forces through the spectrum, adopting high-tech methods to block access and jam or spoof communications. It is over this backdrop that the US Air Force attempts to awaken spectrum operations after decades of waning electromagnetic warfare. The service has been “asleep at the wheel” on electronic warfare, according to an Air Force top official.

Among the steps to turn around 30 years of decline, the Air Force reorganized how it manages such operations and is prioritizing easier-to-update technology to keep ahead of China, Russia, and other highly adept nations.

Details about the Air Force plan are limited because the service has not publicly shared the electromagnetic spectrum superiority strategy it completed this spring.

The Army, by contrast, has broadly discussed its plans in recent years to address how far it fell behind competitors, openly outlining a near-complete overhaul of spectrum operations. 

US adversaries use advanced radars to detect U.S. assets from great distances to prevent sneak attacks, and the American military’s chances for success diminish when it can’t communicate reliably with friendly forces over electromagnetic waves or locate targets because munitions or other systems are jammed.

Now, software-defined systems, which drive electronic maneuvers that could save money over munitions, are a large part of the Air Force’s answer to these challenges.

As Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown put it earlier this year: “In some aspects, an electron is much cheaper than a very expensive missile.” By adopting new capabilities with simple software upgrades, the Air Force could stay abreast with the latest technology to ferret out enemies through their spectrum activities and better shield communications, navigation, and data transfers across the waves, according to