The Army’s electronic warfare experts are feeling misunderstood, and they’re worried that those misunderstandings could put them on the losing end in today’s epic budget battles. The head worrier is Army Col. Jim Ekvall, a one-time artillery man who is now chief of the Electronic Warfare Division within the Army's G-3 operations staff at the Pentagon.
>> Updates in bold italics below.
Col. Jim Ekvall
Ekvall wants to seal a place for the EW specialty in the Army’s post Afghanistan future and hitch it to the growing field of cyberwarfare. That’ll mean winning some internal battles and upgrading equipment, much of which was rushed into service in Iraq and Afghanistan to jam improvised explosive devices.
In a perfect world, Ekvall and his compatriots would give electronic warfare officers, known as EWOs or "29s" after their career field designation, a proposed software called the Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool. The Army plans to award a contract this month for the planning kit. The EWOs would use it to receive intel about an adversary's comms frequencies and send updates to equipment in the field.
The field equipment could include a new Raytheon-built counter-IED and intel pod that Ekvall hopes will be sent forward, presumably to Afghanistan, for operational assessment on the Army’s Gray Eagle unmanned planes. The pod is called NERO for the Networked Electronic Warfare Remotely Operated system. It can send spectrum info back to intel cells but its main purpose will be to jam frequencies used for triggering IEDs. NERO is just like the pods flown in Afghanistan on two traditionally piloted C-12 planes by Task Force CEASAR, short for Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
NERO needs careful testing because the Gray Eagle is a radio controlled plane, and NERO will be jamming radio waves. "We gotta kinda make sure we don’t make the thing crash," Ekvall tells Deep Dive.
A perfect world would also mean buying a new family of Multifunction Electronic Warfare electronics known as MFEW. This is a proposed new start for 2014. A backpack version would let foot soldiers knock out an adversary’s comms or jam a specific frequency, such as one used for triggering IEDs. MFEW might replace the defensive jammers that were rushed onto vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, called CREW for Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare. The Army tells Deep Dive: "We will conduct a Joint Analysis of Alternatives in the future to determine how much DEA (defensive electronic attack) functionality can be built in and provided by MFEW vice an independent CREW system."
Then there’s EW's bid for a role in cyberwarfare. EW advocates want a place in an Army cyber center of excellence, should one be created. You can’t launch a cyber operation if you don’t control the spectrum, Ekvall says. On top of that, troops in theory could use some of the EW equipment to jump the air gap and load malware into an adversary’s network. “Could you plant a seed in that communication to cause a cyber attack? You absolutely could,” Ekvall says.
When it comes to the relationship between cyberspace and EW, Ekvall wants a bit of history to be remembered. “The realities are the Army’s interest in electronic warfare – and it’s really a re-birth of electronic warfare inside the Army – preceded its now consuming worries and concerns about cyberspace and cyberspace operations. Whereas cyberspace is still trying to figure out what it all means, electronic warfare has already kind of done that.”
Ekvall doesn’t know which parts of this vision will come to pass, and he’s not happy about that. Electronic warfare saw a resurgence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s led to a misperception that EW won’t be important once the war in Afghanistan ends, Ekvall explains.
In his view, EW is not just about blocking IEDs, although he definitely sees the importance of that after riding around Iraq in vehicles equipped with jammers. “Electronic warfare is about gaining and maintaining an advantage in the electromagnetic spectrum. A piece of that would be counter IED. A piece of that would be counter comms. A piece of that is… protecting your own precision-guided munitions and your own ability to use, say, satellite communications.”
In the world according to Ekvall, the fixation on jamming is the foundation for all the misunderstandings about EW from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill.
EW’s confusing nomenclature hasn’t helped either. A case in point: The Army manages EW acquisitions within its Intelligence Electronic Warfare & Sensors office, called IEW&S. The EW equipment managed there is collectively known as IEWS, for the Integrated Electronic Warfare System.
The potential for confusion matters at the decision-making levels.
“Things that are more well understood have greater chances of success in this very resource constrained environment that we’re working in right now,” Ekvall says.