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Russia’s war in Ukraine along with China’s defence modernisation drive are helping fuel interest in Western militaries to improve neglected aspects of their electronic warfare capacity. And there is work to do revitalize that warfighting domain.

This blog was first published on the Military Balance+ on 17 August 2023

High-end electronic warfare (EW) is back on the agenda.

In the two decades of counter-insurgency fighting by United States forces and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the focus for EW was on jamming improvised explosive devices. But Russia’s latest military operation in Ukraine and China’s military modernisation are revitalising interest in the US, Asia and Europe in enhancing their ability to manage, disrupt and exploit the electromagnetic spectrum. And there is catching up to do.

US Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signalled his concern in his confirmation hearing in July this year. ‘Over the past few decades, the joint force has lost some muscle memory defending against electromagnetic attack by conducting operations within a permissive electromagnetic spectrum,’ the nominee told senators.

Russia has been extensively using EW assets in the fight in Ukraine, employing a mix of GPS jammers and other systems to defeat Kyiv’s uninhabited aerial vehicles and guided munitions. Russia has used EW systems on its front line to counter Ukraine’s ongoing counter-offensive, though the length of the front line means there are areas to which support does not stretch, according to Ukraine. The US, meanwhile, supplied Kyiv RTX AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles to augment Ukraine’s EW capabilities.

China, meanwhile, has intensified its efforts to become a more formidable electromagnetic spectrum combat power and several years ago elevated the group responsible for EW operations. The Taiwanese defence ministry has reported that China has flown J-16D escort jammers as part of several force packages that have entered its air defence identification zone. The Pentagon also says China has been working on counter-space EW systems, including satellite jammers. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is also set to receive the J-15D, a two-seat carrier-capable fighter equipped with electronic intelligence gathering pods.

Buying power

The threat development is driving modernisation of EW capabilities elsewhere. Poland last year ordered two signals intelligence ships that are slated for delivery in 2027. Steel cutting took place on 27 April, prime contractor Saab said. The first of the ships, the ORP Jerzy Różycki, is being constructed by Poland’s Remontowa Shipbuilding.

Germany is moving ahead with efforts to replace its Tornado electronic combat and reconnaissance aircraft in the suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) role. The Luftwaffe has 20 of the specialised Tornados in inventory, according to Military Balance data. Germany has said it will replace them with 15 modified Eurofighters. The German defence procurement agency has selected Saab to provide the EW package that is based on the Arexis system used on the Gripen E/F. The modified Eurofighters initially are slated to employ the AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – an upgraded version of the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile – though the aircraft will also feature stand-off jamming capability. The developers, including German artificial intelligence provider Helsing, are aiming for an initial operational capability around 2028.

Japan has said it plans to modify one of its C-2 transport aircraft into a stand-off EW platform primarily focused on jamming. The aircraft would augment the RC-2 electronic intelligence aircraft the Japanese Air Self Defense Force already has in service.

Efforts to modernise the US Air Force Compass Call jamming aircraft fleet also are progressing. First flight of the EC-37B, a modified Gulfstream G550 business jet now equipped with its mission equipment, took place in May. The US Navy, meanwhile, is working to upgrade the EA-18G Growler with the goal of replacing the ALQ-99 jamming system with the Next Generation Jammer-Low Band system.

Jam band

The Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated to US military officials and others the value of sharing information previously considered sensitive with close allies, including in the EW realm. ‘Information-sharing is free for the most part,’ Gen. James B. Hecker, head of US Air Forces in Europe, said at the recent Global Air & Space Chiefs Conference. ‘We just got the ability to share the US mission data file,’ he said, noting that more than 600 F-35 Lightning II fighters will be based in Europe over the next decade, mostly with allies and not US forces.

More cooperation may be on the horizon. Gen. Brown, as part of his confirmation process, said Japan, South Korea and the US are working to improve trilateral cooperation, including in the field of EW.

Work to do

The level of activity, though, may not match threats in some areas. Despite Germany’s work on adapting the Eurofighter for the SEAD role, Europe more broadly appears to be underinvesting in EW, creating a likely dependence on the US and its EA-18G fleet.

EW also still doesn’t appear to adequately feature in military plans in other aspects. Some EW experts worry that, among other issues, not enough planning is going into how to secure links underpinning the information-sharing needed as militaries pursue digital transformation efforts. Another area of concern is space and whether enough progress is being made to apply EW in the new warfighting domain, both in terms of protecting friendly capabilities or degrading those of an adversary.