Events around the world show us that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) cannot expect to have unimpeded access to the Electro Magnetic Spectrum (EMS). Potential adversary nations possess the capability to restrict or prevent EMS access at their convenience. These include the capabilities to deny, degrade and disrupt our command and control (C2). These adversaries are highly trained in these techniques and contemporary evidence has shown that they are ready to employ these systems now (1) (2). These examples have shown clearly that Electronic Warfare (EW) can be synchronised with massed precision fires to overwhelm the opponent. This has happened on several occasions. For example, in July 2014 Russian EW was combined with mass precision artillery against a Ukrainian formation. Survivors reported an entire battalion from 79th Airmobile Brigade (Bde) advancing to contact was destroyed in minutes (3).
Were a deployed Australian element to be denied access to EMS for a significant period, it is difficult to estimate the impact on the force and the likely chaos that would follow. Efforts to coordinate, conduct movement, relief or support would be significantly hampered. As a Defence Force we need to think and plan at all levels for the reality of this type of operating environment. How would a battle group (BG) react if it were unable to communicate by any means with a combat team (CT) for an extended period of time? Lost communications procedures already present significant enough concern for command and control without the additional friction of a thinking adversary who intentionally plans these same effects. Nowhere is this more important than in our headquarters (HQs); we must train for the reality of contested EMS access, and understand its implications at all levels of command, particularly those tactical commanders most likely to experience it. Tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP’s) for this situation need to be widely tested – to ensure they work, and furthermore these plans should be considered as manoeuvre planning as complementary to the communications plan. Most importantly, the Commander must be comfortable in controlling and enacting whatever measures are used.
Before we move on, there are three elements of electronic warfare (EW) that form the basis of how it is used and their names are largely self-explanatory. These are Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Support (ES), and Electronic Protection (EP). These terms will be used throughout, and largely we will be talking about EP as the measures taken by a force to defend their own EMS usage.
This article intends to provide a starting point for commanders and planners at all levels to begin understanding how an adversary might begin to use EW and how best to prepare yourself, and your team for the effects of it into the future.
Modern C2 systems provide some inbuilt protections, however they are only as good as the way in which we use them. Over reliance and over confidence in these C2 systems to fulfil the whole EP function on the operators’ behalf is a key vulnerability in protecting our use of the EMS. Despite media reporting, there appears to be widespread ignorance of C2 vulnerabilities to adversary EA; particularly in Global Positioning System (GPS) enabled systems. (4)
Tools such Emission Control (EMCON) and PACE plans need to be specifically tailored to the tactical situation and mission to be effective. Furthermore, as with any tactical plan they must be rehearsed and understood by all who are expected to implement them. Fighting for communications must be at the core of this. It is not just a matter of implementing greater power or equipment, but rather about efficiently using the systems to best suit the threat and the task. Quality of communication may necessarily degrade in order to achieve the C2 result required, in conjunction with an appropriate force protection effect under EP.
‘Secure’ messaging apps and social media use present an increasing problem to all parts of society in terms of privacy and security, but these same issues are carried into the defence context as well. Increasing use of supposedly secure messaging apps, such as Signal or Whatsapp, is an exploitable vulnerability for appropriately skilled adversary groups. Message vendor claims of good security should be treated with great scepticism, especially noting the range of recent breaches of supposedly secure systems. If these are used, it should only occur in accordance with specialist advice and in line with the classification rules applied to it. (5)
Basic Electronic Protection methods make adversary EW work much harder to achieve their goals. Simple measures, such as frequency rotation for example, if not implemented can allow adversary EW to have a much easier task of accurately achieving their ES or EA objectives.
No headquarters, force element, or even private enterprise, has NOT had unfettered access to EMS. Where competition for this usage exist, notably in exercise and more so deployed environments, deliberate planning and control of the EMS is all the more important. Culturally we have a command expectation of always knowing where everything within a formation, battlegroup, or combat team is at any given time and what it is doing.
'We often exercised and deployed our joint manoeuvre forces to operate in a contested warfighting environment. So we thought we were postured, prepared and ready for any major Russian incursions.
Critically however, we had failed to properly exercise, and therefore truly understand, the impact of losing control of Defence Information and communications technology (ICT) networks, systems and data links critical to the command, coordination and conduct of manoeuvre warfare.
As a result, the subsequent speed and synchronicity in which the Russians orchestrated and delivered the cyber-attacks within kinetic and non-kinetic joint fires was overwhelming and catastrophic. It left us on the canvas: deaf, dumb and blind – we were essentially rendered combat ineffective in 118 minutes!'
– COL Andrey Lesenko, Ukranian Battle Group Commander 2014
Future operations may include adversaries with considerable ability to restrict, or completely prevent, access to the EMS. Commanders must come to grips with this new paradigm and become comfortable in an environment where units cannot communicate or be located 24/7. For this reason it is a command imperative to understand these effects on command and control and in turn deliberately train with these pressures in mind, either as a constructive constraint on the force, or with live effects in play.
There is a need to allow subordinate commanders to exercise Mission Command without constant oversight from HQ or superior commanders. Once orders are issued and missions assigned, subordinate commanders must be able to exercise mission command without constantly being engaged by higher levels of command via C2 systems. Ultimately, being consistent in this approach in training prepares the force, command functions, and battle design to reflect the reality of a competitive communications terrain.
Army must start training for this new reality. Training design needs to account for the probability of contested EMS access. This design should incorporate realistic scenarios where commanders have to fight for access to the EMS. Not doing so is likely to cause significant problems and casualties in the event the ADF deploys into a theatre where EMS access is contested.
Train as we Fight?
If anyone had doubts as to EW effects in supporting offensive activities, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 should have removed them. EW can give a decisive edge in overcoming an otherwise peer enemy, especially if that enemy pays EW no attention. Ukrainian commanders, overwhelmed by use of new Russian EW and cyber capabilities, can be forgiven for their failure to prepare to deal with those capabilities. By looking forward however, and understanding how we would be impacted and in turn react under the same situation, we can harden the force for the inevitable use of these same effects against us.
Knowledge of these capabilities has spread widely into the public domain; commands and commanders who fail to prepare for this have no such excuse. Thinking about these new operational risks and preparing to counter, or work through them, is consistent in the Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019; to be ready now by being trained and prepared for the operating environments Army may have to operate in.
Camouflage – reducing HQ electronic signature
HQ’s have become the proverbial soldier in a trench, on a step ladder, wearing a luminous balaclava and smoking endless cigarettes! Electronically speaking, HQ’s are very visible due to the wide array of military communications suites, not to mention the various Bluetooth, wifi, and other personal emitters likely present in and around them. This destroys any, and all, efforts to physically camouflage a HQ. The amount of signals emanating from a typical Bde HQ is widely visible to equipment readily available from your local Jay Car Radio shop.
Birdseye view of a HQ's electronic signature
HQ’s must learn to firstly understand what their electronic signature looks like, and then in turn mask, reduce or hide it. Not all solutions employable by Combat Teams and below will be effective for HQ’s, and in turn the ways in which a HQ will look to mask itself are not open to Combat Teams. They must be tailored to the tactical situation, the capability of the adversary, and most importantly incorporated centrally as part of the Operational Plan. What follows are a number of starting point options available to commanders to begin building their own EP plan.
- Radio Traffic Levels: Not all traffic is priority; efforts to define what is and is not priority are required from an operator level to command decisions in use and priorities of communications means. Where traffic is not required, could be sent at another time, or by another means must be identified and re-prioritised. This will require consideration by staff and commanders. They know best what information they must have, what information they would like and what information they do not really need – even if it is nice to have. Radio discipline is a forgotten art, and one of the simplest measures to implement.
- Line Communications: Line communications eliminate emissions, rendering elements invisible to adversary EW. 3 BDE as REDFOR used line extensively in EX TALISMAN SABRE 15 to great effect, reducing their EMS profile and in turn greatly reducing the collection opportunity afforded to BLUFOR EW. Line communications undoubtedly will be necessary in the event radio silence is imposed meaningfully. Use of line communications takes time to establish – and requires setting up before element main body moves or as part of a development plan. Likewise there is the increased risk of physical identification or interception of the line. Furthermore, depending on the type of line and the way it is being used, this may reduce data flows as well. Line can be damaged by either adversary action or accidentally, so it will need repair teams on stand-by.
- Radio Silence: Use of radio silence offers obvious advantages in the significantly lower emission level. This offers a number of options for full or complete silence, enhancement of deceptions, and any other inventive way that it can be designed into a plan. In turn this may require communications which do not transmit on EMS, as well as thorough planning, coordination and of course rehearsal. For radio silence to be effective, it requires your adversary to not know you have imposed it! This technique was used to good effect during the first Gulf War in the lead up to offensive operations commencing. Allied units south of Kuwait continued their radio use throughout the build up to the offensive whilst others were placed under silence. As a result this was the traffic the Iraqis saw, and they were therefore unaware of 9 divisions on the western Iraqi border until they attacked (6). Radio silence must be used in conjunction with other camouflage and deception methods – hides, restrictions of movement, etc. The adversary knows you are out there; if you turn everything off and offer no electronic target, your adversary will use other ISR methods to attempt to locate you.
- HF Band: Due to the way in which it propagates and the ranges over which it can travel, HF is inherently difficult to search or conduct geolocation on. The advent of HF Software Defined Radios (SDR) has made HF more accessible and capable, including Automatic Link Establishment and the ability of SDR nets to monitor frequencies and change them when conditions deteriorate. These mean that adversary electronic attack efforts would potentially be less effective. Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) is a method of HF transmission that is harder again to geolocate. Previously having a minimum range of 50 km, modern NVIS antennae use ground wave, so many units could use NVIS. NVIS antennae capable of use on the move are available.
- Traffic Scheduling: This technique reduces the RF emissions profile of a transmitting station, in a more complex way than just scheduling reporting times, by altering the station’s signature in time and spectrum usage, including changing systems and bands of spectrum for reporting. For maximum effect, it is best used in conjunction with frequency rotations. Where stations can use scheduling and rotations, both should be randomised.
- Remote Antenna: Setting up remote antennae can prevent adversary EW from discovering your true location – providing sufficient separation between transmitter and antennae is possible. Setting up remote antennae requires significant planning and resources – most importantly coaxial cables and signal amplifiers. It is not possible for all radios or elements.
- Microwave Radio systems: These are high powered, focused emitters which use UHF through to EHF to provide point to point communications. These systems may be secure and allow complex traffic and high data rates. The High Capacity Line of Sight system used during EX TALISMAN SABRE 19 is such a system, and has a wide range of application in trunking communications (combining multiple communications channels into one) which may obscure stations using the system, as well as providing increased directionality of the transmission making detection or interception more difficult.
- UAV Radio Relay: 20 REGT can already do this with Shadow. This would need the formation Commander to make a decision on the balance of 20 REGT Mission between ISR and C2. Flight time to patrol areas, endurance, and down time to refuel / recharge UAV’s and their equipment would need to be included into S6 planning.
Command Posts are getting harder to hide, to the eye and on the EMS
Electronic Deception (ED)
Given the difficulty of hiding RF transmissions, deception offers a way of avoiding adversary EW by increasing their workload using false signals. Deception plans need to be synchronised, resourced and coordinated at the highest levels in order to ensure the effectiveness of the deception, and this is no different for ED. ED should form part of an overall deception reinforced by manoeuvre, and commitment of assets. There are excellent resources out there detailing deception planning options, but ED provides an important component of it. Historically this has been at theatre or even coalition level. Deception plans at lower levels need to support the higher-level deception plan. For an excellent example of deception planning spanning a huge range of assets and demonstrating great complexity in execution, read about Noel Wild and the OPS (B) Staff planning as part of OP FORTITUDE supporting the D-Day landings. Some ED tools to consider are included below.
- Antenna Farms: HQs already have antennae farms to support the range of networks they require for operations. This proposes to have multiple antenna farms IOT create electronic ‘smoke’ in terms of both physical sign, as well as transmissions. Placing transmitters and antennae farms in viable but unoccupied locations should draw adversary EW attention to a place we want it. This should involve realistic radio traffic to support it.
- False Signals: Recorded and rebroadcast radio traffic can add additional realism and complexity to deception plans employing ED, in particular they should consider not only the controlling station of the network but also the outstations and the patterns associated with their traffic. Large scale employment may overwhelm adversary EW for periods; but even if it does not, it will increase the amount of traffic to be collected and analysed. Systems designed to emulate this type of traffic may be pre-positioned and used offensively or defensively as part of a deception plan.
Many modern communications systems rely on GPS signals for network synchronisation. GPS signals are relatively weak by the time they reach the receiver, making them easy to jam. Many nations globally possess GPS Jamming systems; an example of which is Russian GPS jammer usage in Syria and Norway. Norway’s accusation of Russian GPS denial during NATO exercises demonstrates in particular some of the potential disruptive effects, not only to military systems but also to broader civilian usage, in turn having ramifications for military plans and operations (7). Within our region, Chinese scientists published a paper in 2018 describing how they heated parts of the ionosphere to block signals, including GPS and had tested this during June (8). China is known to have several GPS jamming systems for tactical and strategic level use with media reporting indicating the presence of these systems in the South China Sea. (9)
Heavy reliance by systems and people on the use of GPS as an assured system is problematic. To ensure a holistic EP plan, organisations need to make sure that they have redundancy or well considered actions-on to combat this type of attack. Not only does a GPS denial effect create problems for military processes, but it also rapidly confuses the operating environment, particularly where air and maritime users require it for safety and navigation. By not understanding these users and the way in which it can affect the plan, vulnerabilities in manoeuvre planning can rapidly be exposed.
Defence forces can no longer expect to have technological dominance in the EMS. With the assumption that the EMS will be contested by a range of users, from adversarial to friendly and even industrial users. In these conditions we need to think about how we use the EMS efficiently and effectively, how we protect it and most importantly how we train effectively to ensure that we are ready to work in a degraded environment.
If they are to achieve their missions, soldiers must be able to operate effectively in environments with contested EMS access. For this to occur, realistic, demanding training is necessary to ensure deployed formations can engage the electronic threat and still win the battle. Simple measures in 'fighting for comms' can make a large difference in how effective EW is on a force. Should soldiers become familiar with why and how these measures work, the force collectively is hardened significantly.
This will require a significant training effort. That effort can only be initiated and driven by the senior levels of Army for integration into exercises and the training continuum.
This document is not by any means an exhaustive representation of EW or its considerations, but is intended as a piece to generate discussion and interest in various issues which fall under its broad span. What is clear is that unimpeded access to EMS can no longer be guaranteed. To work in such an environment all members of defence need to understand why and how they combat some of these effects, and particularly for planners and commanders how do we incorporate this into our plans to ensure their robustness across all domains.
Commanders must become accustomed to the reality they may not always have communications with subordinate units and consider this in their planning. What are the potential outcomes of adversary EW effects on their sub-units? How will commanders react to these effects and what can they do to protect themselves?
Russia and China see EW/SI/Cyber as significant force multipliers and will continue to invest heavily in them. Recent conflicts have demonstrated this multi-domain approach to warfare and tactical integration of these effects – for example ISREW cueing overwhelming massed OS fires including EA in Eastern Ukraine.
None of this can be achieved without buy-in by leaders at all levels and a significant training effort. That being said, there is plenty of opportunity to develop robust and effective EP procedures and plans; reach out to your S6s and EW planners and make a start on integrating EW more closely into your manoeuvre plans.