Air Force Has a New Warfare Wing Ready to Take On Electromagnetic Spectrum Threats

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The 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing activation ceremony.
The 350th Spectrum Warfare Group commander, Col. David Perez, accepts the group guidon from Col. William Young, Jr., 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing commander, during the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing activation ceremony, June 25, 2021. (U.S. Air Force/Lt. Karissa Rodriguez)

The U.S. Air Force has a new unit devoted to competing in electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS, warfare.

The brand-new 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing is now ready to execute "maintenance, operational and technical expertise for electronic warfare in support of the combat Air Forces," Air Combat Command announced on Friday.

The Pentagon has for years been working to better protect its equipment and deny data access by blocking or jamming threats to the U.S. on the electromagnetic spectrum -- everything "from radio waves to visible light and affects almost every aspect of life from personal cellular phones and Wi-Fi to advanced technology used in military applications," according to the Air Force.

The new wing aims to protect friendly signals and offer countermeasures from adversary actors like Russia and China who could disrupt communications, or even manipulate data to deceive.

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

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Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian-backed separatists have jammed signals to misdirect or destroy commercial drones used by Ukrainian soldiers to conduct aerial surveillance, and have also frequently targeted Ukrainian soldiers' smartphones, blocking cellular signals as far as 20 miles from their frontline positions.

In 2015, China's People's Liberation Army created a czar for electronic warfare on its joint staff to supervise EW and cyber missions. The move pointed to a renewed, dedicated focus on the threat.

The new wing will be temporarily based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where the 53rd Electronic Warfare Group, within the 53rd Wing, will move under the 350th, the release states. A permanent location is expected to be named in 2022 after the service concludes a required environmental analysis.

"The competition in the electromagnetic spectrum is more important than ever before. The Joint Force is connected by and delivers effects in and through the EMS," Col. William Young, 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing commander, said in the release.

"If we lose the fight in the EMS, we will lose the fights in all other domains. We're here to help make sure that doesn't happen," Young said. "Standing up this unit emphasizes the Air Force's commitment to consolidating and modernizing our entire enterprise so that joint warfighters have freedom to attack, maneuver and protect themselves at the time, place and parameters of our choosing."

Earlier this year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said the creation of the spectrum warfare unit would be a fresh start for the service, which he said had "asleep at the wheel for the past 25 to 30 years" when it came 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.

"Bottom line, we are not deterring our adversaries like we need to," Brown said during the panel. "Our advantage is eroding, and the competition is increasing, [so] we need to change now."

The service's EMS warfare plan, which aligns with the Pentagon's larger EMS road map and implementation plan, was completed in the spring, according to C4ISRNET, but the service has not publicly debuted the strategy.

The Defense Department unveiled its EMS strategic goals in October 2020. Officials have said it's possible the department may move to create an EMS combatant command if the strategy calls for one.

Last month, experts and lawmakers called for the DoD to create a position within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to specifically manage and oversee the joint electronic warfare spectrum. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said the EMS mission has become decentralized among various units and commands across the military, with no particular service "owning" the EMS, Air Force Magazine reported.

"You need someone at the one- or two- star level that says, 'This is my problem. I own it,'" said Bacon, a former brigadier general who retired as the director of Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for strategy, plans and doctrine at the Pentagon. Bacon was speaking during a Hudson Institute webinar.

In his "Accelerate Change or Lose" strategy paper published in August, Brown stated 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."

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

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

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