By Sean D. Carberry
Jun 22, 2017
While cyber’s star has been on the rise in national security circles, the Pentagon’s electronic warfare capabilities have languished. That must change, said one senior official.
Bill Conley, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s year-and-a-half-old Office of Electronic Warfare, said that for the last 25 years, the U.S. has failed to keep up as adversaries have made great strides in electronic warfare capabilities. And that is why the Defense Department developed a new electronic warfare strategy, he told the audience at an Air Force Association discussion.
“Domain superiority, be it land, air, sea, space, cyberspace, is effectively really predicated upon the ability to have superiority or control in the electromagnetic spectrum,” he said.
Adversaries have studied the U.S. and recognized that if they can disrupt or degrade the ability of warfighters to sense and flow data, they can gain a tactical advantage. That is why the Chinese in particular have made electronic warfare a strategic priority.
In response, the Pentagon’s strategy sets forth a vision: “Agile, adaptive and integrated electronic warfare to offensively achieve [electromagnetic spectrum] superiority across the range of military operations.”
The goals of the strategy are effectively to train, man and equip the electronic warfare force and to “bolster partnerships with industry, academia, interagency and allied partners.”
Conley stressed the importance of working with allies to ensure systems are as interoperable as possible since the U.S. almost always fights in partnership with other nations. That can create limitations, he acknowledged.
“We have to balance what is the necessary or needed capability and what is kind of the security risk of what we are able to go do,” he said. “There are a lot of lessons learned about how to fight as a coalition force over the last 15 years … many of those lessons learned involve the interactions via the electromagnetic spectrum.” There are still more lessons to learn, he added.
Those in government and on contracts with the Pentagon can access DOD’s electronic warfare strategic document, though the actual implementation plan remains classified.
“Right now we’re working through the implementation plan — it is a delicate dance,” he said. Finding a balance between making the plan proscriptive enough to provide actionable guidance without stifling innovation is the challenge, Conley said.
Another central challenge, he said, is leveraging DOD’s resources and making the most of what’s available in the commercial sector. The Pentagon’s electronic warfare budget is a little north of $5 billion said Conley, which he compared to the $50 billion that cellular companies invest annually in spectrum technology.
“At this point, candidly, we will be outpaced by the rate of innovation which occurs in the commercial world,” he said. “[That] means we have to be very deliberate in how and where we choose to be innovative with our defense-unique dollars, to make sure we’re not being redundant with that, but also … [to] leverage those investments that are happening.”
Conley pointed out that when you look at the components inside of any of the military’s electronic warfare boxes, ” the vast majority of them anyone can go order online.”
And that is why the DOD will need to build on programs like the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental to increase its outreach and connectivity to the tech sector. “There’s more work to be done there that would probably get us gains into the future,” he said.
Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.
Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.