March 5, 2018
To succeed in the battlespace of the future and to ensure combat superiority over peer adversaries, the U.S. military must be equipped with capabilities to defend information networks in cyberspace and to secure unimpeded access to the electromagnetic spectrum. Adversaries are developing cyber and electronic warfare capabilities to conduct information operations against U.S. systems that will likely threaten the speed and accuracy of military communications, intelligence and data sharing channels, while maliciously altering or stealing the information itself. These capabilities often have complementary effects, which means integrating cyber and electronic warfare could provide a stronger protection and attack capacity for U.S. military assets.
Cyber warfare involves operations disrupting, exploiting or crippling adversaries through information systems and the Internet. These operations are generally referred to as computer network operations, including the capability to attack and disrupt enemy computer networks; defend military information systems; and exploit enemy computer networks through intelligence collection. Computer network operations are usually accomplished through the use of computer code and computer applications.
Electronic warfare can be described as military action involving the use of directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum to deceive or attack an enemy or to protect friendly systems from similar actions. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), directed energy weapons can amplify or disrupt an electromagnetic field, resulting in the jamming, overpowering and deceiving of information managed by computerized systems or electronic platforms such as surveillance or telecommunication satellites. With enough power, these weapons can also overheat the electric circuitry of almost any piece of equipment—computerized or not—resulting in the destruction or interference of a machine’s electrical-based functions and components.
Military information and communication systems operate in cyberspace via wireless connections that access the electromagnetic spectrum, such as radar systems and navigation equipment and their controlling computers. These systems also include information management technologies that perform data gathering, processing and storage, in addition to the infrastructure responsible for moving the data through nonwireless networks to other devices or processing centers. Being denied access to the spectrum can significantly impede U.S. forces conducting offensive or defensive cyber missions at the tactical and strategic level.
The military relies heavily on cyberspace for maintaining awareness during operations on the battlefield, and DOD officials understand the information and data transiting the electromagnetic spectrum is susceptible to inference by adversarial electronic warfare activities. Consequently, capabilities must be developed, and jointly coordinated, to protect the military’s information not only while it is resident in cyber or computer-based networks, but also while the information is traveling through the electromagnetic spectrum.
Peer adversaries continue to develop new technologies capable of complex computer network and electronic warfare operations. U.S. forces understand how their assets are vulnerable to these capabilities, and conversely, how similar capabilities may be employed against adversarial systems. Russia has demonstrated its advanced electronic warfare capabilities in Syria, where a swarm of 13 armed unmanned aerial vehicles in January of 2017 attempting to strike Russian combat headquarters at Khmeimim Air Base was jointly disabled by electronic countermeasures and anti-aircraft missiles. Seven of the unmanned aircraft were engaged by the Pantsir air-defense missile system while the remaining six were likely brought down from some sort of command disruption,which could have been anything ranging from a cyber attack overriding external controls to the jamming of GPS uplinks to interfere with navigation systems.
Russia also demonstrated its cyber warfare capabilities with extensive computer network operations in Ukraine in 2015. Russian hackers employed computer network exploitation practices to penetrate the computer systems of an electric power grid operator in the Western portion of the country, causing power outages that affected more than 220,000 Ukrainian residents. Conducting intelligence and reconnaissance of the power grid for months, the hackers gained information about critical system vulnerabilities. They then disrupted electrical breakers and took power distribution centers offline. Malware destroyed information resident in the power grid’s computer networks to prevent repairs and slow the Ukrainian operators trying to regain control of their systems. These operations demonstrate the capabilities U.S. forces will likely encounter against Russian or other peer adversaries.
It is important that cyber and electronic warfare threats be contextualized together to create the most effective defense but also to inspire a discourse on developing the most effective offense. U.S. forces should take advantage of the opportunity a comprehensive integration of cyber and electronic warfare offers—first conceptually and then operationally.
At the policy level, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. Cyber Command and U.S. Strategic Command have been leading the effort to synchronize cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. The priority is to establish an effective governance structure to coordinate a multiservice approach to harmonizing electromagnetic spectrum and cyber activities—and doctrines—in addition to overseeing new investments in offensive and defensive technologies to support these efforts. The DOD recognizes that the synchronization of cyber and electronic warfare is key for U.S. forces to succeed. High-end peer conflict will not be won by leveraging electromagnetic spectrum use—such as utilizing space-based satellites to provide global communications, surveillance, missile warning or position navigation—but instead, it will be won by projecting control from within the spectrum itself.
An unclassified U.S. Army Cyber and Electronic Warfare Operations Field Manual released in April 2017 states that, “Employing cyberspace and electronic warfare capabilities under a single planning, integration and synchronization methodology increases the operational commander’s ability to understand the environment, project power and synchronize multiple operations using the same domain and environment.” Coordinating offensive and defensive activities under a unified approach will likely allow a faster response time to enemy actions. The spectrum is the common denominator for both cyberspace and electronic warfare operations, which suggests that independent approaches to securing information networks may leave vulnerabilities for adversaries to exploit in either cyberspace or in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Chinese operational doctrine has indicated that information operations—protecting information collection, processing and transmission, as well as the denial of those capabilities to an adversary—is vital for achieving success in a high-technology peer conflict. The same doctrine also emphasizes that domination in the cyber and information space will be a precondition for achieving combat supremacy in all other domains. U.S. adversaries are comprehensively funding and deploying joint cyber and electronic warfare operating concepts and equipment. If U.S. commanders fail to reciprocate, adversaries are likely to achieve an asymmetric advantage that challenges the notion of U.S. technological supremacy on the battlefield—regardless of the capabilities of platforms already deployed in other domains.
Sam Cohen is a Canadian citizen currently completing a Master of Science in defense and strategic studies at Missouri State University’s Washington, D.C. Campus. He is also working as a security risk analyst focusing on the Asia-Pacific at Horizon Intelligence, a geopolitical consulting and advisory firm. He has recently accepted a summer position as an analyst with Deloitte Canada’s Cyber Risk Group in the Risk Advisory Department.