No Longer 'Asleep at the Wheel:' Air Force to Roll Out New Electronic Warfare Strategy

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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. delivers remarks during the farewell ceremony for Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

The U.S. Air Force is finalizing the decision on where to host its new electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS, warfare wing and will debut a comprehensive electronic warfare strategy in the spring, according to the service's top general.

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said the efforts are a fresh start for the service, which has "been asleep at the wheel for the past 25 to 30 years" when it comes to offensive measures and protecting its equipment across the electromagnetic spectrum.

"The Air Force is showing several efforts to ensure a competitive advantage in the spectrum, but I really think we need to move faster," he said during a Jan. 27 virtual event hosted by the Association of Old Crows.

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Details on the wing's location will be revealed "soon," Brown said, adding that the service's EMS warfare plan, which will coincide with the Pentagon's larger EMS road map and implementation plan, will be published in coming weeks.

The Defense Department unveiled its EMS strategic goals in October. Officials have said it's possible the department may move to create an EMS combatant command if the road map calls for one.

As outlined in his "Accelerate Change or Lose" strategy paper published in August, Brown emphasized that electronic warfare operations could be a cheaper enemy deterrent than missiles.

"The Air Force must provide EMS capabilities at the right time, at the right place to benefit the joint force," he said, adding that it's an area where the services can "upgrade and change fairly quickly."

During an Air Force Association event last fall, then-Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. "Seve" Wilson told audiences that the EMS wing would likely fall under the 16th Air Force. Formed in 2019 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, the 16th Air Force is responsible for cyber; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; electronic warfare; and information operations.

But in November, Lt. Gen. Chris Weggeman, deputy commander of Air Combat Command, or ACC, said during an AFCEA conference that the service has set its sights on the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Both units are part of ACC.

Wilson, who retired in November, was instrumental in launching a study to understand where the Air Force -- and the DoD as a whole -- has seen gaps in EW operations over the last two decades. In 2017, he helped spearhead the Electronic Warfare Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team, or ECCT, which studied where and how an attack manifests on the electromagnetic spectrum and how best to deny an adversary.

"We need to know what part of the spectrum is being denied and be able to get the data out from whatever or wherever it is, through whatever means at the time or the place that [we] can," Wilson said during a 2018 interview. "We are dependent on the spectrum for everything that we do. You can use any domain. And the spectrum is critical to the use of that domain."

Officials say jamming techniques used by Russia against Ukraine and in Syria show how the threat has evolved.

Russian-backed separatists have jammed signals to misdirect or destroy commercial drones used by Ukrainian soldiers to conduct aerial surveillance. The move, first observed in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea, caused U.S. troops to be more aware as they trained Ukrainian guardsmen on the western side of the country. Russia has also jammed radio frequency bands and frequently targeted Ukrainian soldiers' smartphones, blocking cellphone signals as far as 20 miles from their frontline positions.

"We can no longer solely depend on defensive capability and expect to be successful," Brown said Wednesday. "Bottom line, we are not deterring our adversaries like we need to. … Our advantage is eroding, and the competition is increasing, [so] we need to change now."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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