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Short History of US Army Electronic Warfare

Electronic Warfare (EW) seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. It’s certainly been in the news.

In the last three years, we’ve seen: a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on “Strengthening EW capabilities within the Department of Defense (DoD)” [1]; a Defense Science Board Study on “21st Century Military Operations in a Complex Electromagnetic Environment;” [2] and numerous articles on the most recent Russian escapades in the Ukraine, most of which echo the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Europe, LTG Ben Hodges’, comments on Russian EW capabilities (“eye-watering”). [3]

But what exactly is Electronic Warfare?

It is not Cyberspace Operations, which uses computer networks, some of which may be connected through wireless means – although even many often use the terms interchangeably.  It is not Signals Intelligence, which uses the Electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) to collect intelligence for Title 50 authorities, although SIGINT resources can also be used for EW targeting. 

EW is the use of that mostly invisible world around us, the electromagnetic spectrum, to conduct military action. See Figure 1: [4]

electronic warfare definition

Other assets that use the mostly invisible world of the spectrum include cellphones, radios, radars, GPS and timing capabilities, all SATCOM-enabled C4 systems, logistics tracking systems, intelligence sensing systems, precision-guided munitions to include laser-guided capabilities, keyless entry systems, automatic-opening store doors, wireless cameras, wireless computer networks, security systems…just about every technology we use, both in daily life or in combat, can include an EMS-enabled capability. While the EMS does also include visible light, this EMS space is not predominantly used for C4ISR and control purposes.

In Figure 2, we see the divisions of electronic warfare: Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Support (ES), and Electronic Protect (EP). [5]  Although ES seeks emissions for the purposes of targeting, not listening, as Title 10 troops are not authorized to “listen in” on networks or to collect intelligence, local commanders may direct the use of SIGINT systems to find targets for the purpose of attacking them rather than to collect intelligence.

electronic warfare diagram

Much of the recent EW dialogue has focused on airborne electronic warfare capabilities: the Navy’s and USMC’s EA-6B Prowlers and EA-18G Growlers, and the Air Force’s EC-130 Compass Call missions. Those aircraft fly at 30,000 feet or higher in support of deep strike and bombing missions. They jam the ground-based enemy Air Defense radars far below in order to prevent those radars from “seeing” and launching missiles at the bombers and fighters. This mission is called “SEAD” – Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, or “Counter-IADS” – Counter-Integrated Air Defense Systems. For decades, when DoD personnel spoke of EW, it was Navy and USAF leaders discussing the need to protect their high-dollar aircraft and critical missions.  

Since the introduction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, however, the term Electronic Warfare has begun to be re-associated with ground forces as well.

Insurgents and terrorists began to realize they could use radio frequency (RF)-controlled devices such as garage door openers, key fobs and RC toy controllers to detonate explosives – everything from old mortar shells to C-4 explosive material – against our convoys, installations and dismounted troops. 

Ground forces fought back with crude jammers that listened for emissions on specified target frequencies and then jammed them milliseconds later with high-power, high-volume bursts of RF energy on the same frequency. While this proved effective in the short term, the enemy quickly migrated from those frequencies to stay ahead of our jammers, thus creating an endless cat-and-mouse scenario. In addition, our powerful jammers ended up destroying our own C2 capabilities.

As the Army realized we were in a long fight against IEDs, one which was going to impact all of our C4ISR competencies, Army leaders came to the conclusion they needed to have what the other Services did -- a trained cadre of Electronic Warfare specialists and the equipment to fight on the electromagnetic Spectrum.

The Navy and Air Force Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs) stepped in to help out the Army in theater, but while they were effective and life-saving, the differences between the EW fight in the Air/Sea domains and the Land domain proved to be immense.

Each has their own unique challenges, but the Army realized the ground domain – with its constantly moving landscape of emitters and collectors on the complex terrain – needed its own team of specialists.  In a world where every Soldier is a sensor and carries a C2 capability, where tanks, MRAPS, HUMMWVs, MATVs, UASs, rotary winged and fixed wing aircraft are constantly moving amidst red and white EMS-using forces, it became critical to have a team of personnel who were born and bred into the RF-dense and both terrain and EMS-dependent environment of deployed Army formations.

The first step the Army took to grow this capability was in 2005, with the formation of the Army IED Task Force. Not a year later, the Vice Chief of Staff determined the Army had to create its own EW standard for Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership & Education, Personnel, and Facilities (DOTMLPF).  While the Army tried to “stop the bleeding” with the deployment of thousands of CREW (Counter-RCIED Electronic Warfare) devices to theater, they also began a more strategic effort to create an EW capability. That action began with an in-depth internal review of Army EW capabilities. After nine months of study, the following was found:

  • The last Army EA capabilities in place were in the 1980s, during the Cold War. At that time, Military Intelligence Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence, or CEWI battalions, had just been formed to provide tactical intelligence to Division and below. These units had high-power jammers to jam C2 capabilities of the Russians, East Germans or North Korean attacking forces, but focused on direction finding and gathering of intelligence from signals. [6] An example of CEWI Battalion jamming capabilities are seen in Figure 3. [7]

electronic attack options

  • These capabilities were allowed to atrophy to the point of non-existence as SIGINT became a greater priority.
  • The Cold War scenario never materialized, but the rise of the Internet, and the increased threat it posed to National Security, taxed finite intelligence resources - so the focus changed.  Electronic Attack had all but disappeared to the Army except in the Aviation community, where counter-radar capabilities (SEAD) were updated and modernized; there was not even an Electronic Warfare annex in the OPLAN to attack Iraq in 2003.
  • The Army had no equipment (other than CREW), no people, no doctrine, no units, no training and no facilities to conduct EW. 
  • For decades the Army had assumed that they would have EMS superiority on the battlefield. So C4ISR systems are largely unprotected against jamming and other EA techniques. We do not train to operate in an EMS-contested environment, and other than the enlisted specialty of Spectrum Managers, no one in the Army was even trained on how to operate in the far more benign congested environment.
  • Worst of all, the study highlighted enormous EW threats. While we had allowed our ability to blind and deafen our enemies (on the spectrum) to atrophy , literally every other first-world nation and near-peer competitor had taken great strides in building and modernizing their ground force EW capabilities. Russia, North Korea, and China were the most capable, with regiments comprised of thousands of EW troops and top-notch equipment, that could degrade much of the equipment from many of the Army programs of record in communications (to include all voice and SATCOM), situational awareness (to include all GPS and timed capabilities), all command and control such as EPLRS and FBCB2), all fire finding and direction finding radars, UAS control links,and many other programs EMS-using capability.

When the VCSA ordered in 2007 that EW would be an Army core competency, the Army was challenged in finding it the right “home.”  It now resides at the Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Over the years, the Army was able to create an officer, warrant officer and enlisted series of EW specialties and train them at Fort Sill. These Soldiers have now been deploying for eight years and have risen to the ranks of Sergeant Major and Colonel. The Army POMed over a billion dollars for the Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS) and material fielding of critical EW hardware (now morphed to the Multifunction EW (MFEW) program) was scheduled to begin in 2015.

Although funding has been diverted for other programs since 2010, what remains is aligned under the Army’s Intelligence Directorate, where programmatic funding for MFEW and a Spectrum Management Program called Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool (EWPMT) now reside.

As far as the Defense Science Board study went, three overarching needs emerged:

  • First is the need to dynamically manage use of the electromagnetic spectrum. The U.S. lacks not only current situational awareness of the crowded spectrum, but also lacks the ability to dynamically make efficient use of the spectrum and to deny it to adversaries. This is a substantial technical challenge.
  • Second is the need to achieve near real-time system adaptation. The speed at which modern digital electronics can shift operating modes and techniques has increased dramatically. The U.S. needs to adapt its use of EW hardware and software faster to keep up with the speed inherent in today's electronics.
  • Third is the need to shift more to offense. The study determined that the U.S. cannot afford to patch every EW deficiency in all of its military warfare systems. To keep U.S. forces competitive, the U.S. needs to shift more to EW offense. This approach increases the burden on the adversary, imposes cost, and creates chaos in the adversary's environment. The U.S. can trade on that chaos for advantage in the fight. Specific recommendations are included in each of these three areas. [8]

The DSB study recommendations have resulted in the formation of a joint EW Executive Committee (EXCOM) under OSD-ATL. The DSB study, the GAO report, LTG Hodges’ remarks and the growing awareness of EW have sparked other initiatives such as an EW Bill from Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) who hopes to use it to force awareness of EW spending in the Services.

The way ahead is unpredictable for Army EW. Without a true home, there is a very real danger the EW strides may be defocused from the GAO and DSB findings. However, senior leaders remain committed to meeting the requirements for our globally deployable Army to defeat all possible threats, to include the invisible ones in the Electromagnetic Spectrum. The increasing awareness of near-peer capabilities has been a strong “wake up” call to the Army writ large, and indeed to all our Armed Forces.


[1]  GAO - Office, U. S. (2012). ELECTRONIC WARFARE - DOD Actions Needed to Strengthen Management and Oversight. Washington DC: GAO.

[2]  Board, D. S. (2015). 21st Century Military Operations in a Complex Electromagnetic Environment. Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.

[3] Hodges, L. B. (2015, March 31). Interview: LtGen Ben Hodges. (D. N. Staff, Interviewer)

[4]  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. (2012). Joint Publication 3-13.1, Electronic Warfare. Washington, DC: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[5] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. (2012). Joint Publication 3-13.1, Electronic Warfare. Washington, DC: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[6] Quinn, R. (2014, April 4). 522nd MI (CEWI) Battalion passes tactical intelligence test. April 7, 1977. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

[7] Command, U. A. (1986). FM 34-80: Brigade And Battalion Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Operations. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

[8] Board, D. S. (2015). 21st Century Military Operations in a Complex Electromagnetic Environment. Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.


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