Army’s electronic warfare program has enough soldiers, needs more experience, equipment

The Army's top electronic warfare officer says the service has done a good job of rebuilding its personnel following 20 years in which the Army had no meaningfu...

After five years of a gradual rebuilding process, the Army’s nascent electronic warfare program has plenty of people. Now it needs to equip them to do their jobs, a process that will ramp up significantly beginning next year, officials say.

The Army has been slowly reconstituting electronic warfare as a warfighting discipline after having gotten out of the EW business at the end of the Cold War. But Col. Jeffrey Church, the chief of the Army’s electronic warfare division, said the improvised explosive device threat in Iraq and Afghanistan proved the decision was a mistake and the service is now completely committed to rebuilding its capacity to fight in the electromagnetic spectrum.

After having made EW a military operational specialty in 2011,  the Army now has sufficient personnel in its ranks — just over 800 people — even if they’re underequipped to perform their missions right now.

“I often joke that in the Army, EW does not stand for ‘electronic warfare,’ it stands for ‘extra worker,’” Church told the Association of Old Crows’ annual convention Tuesday in Washington. “He’s highly trained, he has top secret clearances, but he doesn’t have much materiel to do anything with, so he ends up working in the operations shop, the intelligence shop, wherever the commander needs him.”

But Church said that’s about to change as the Army begins to field a key software suite known as Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool (EWPMT). It will be loaded onto laptops and deployed to electronic warfare soldiers around the world beginning next year.

“That will change things because for the first time, commanders are going to start to be able to see and visually understand the electromagnetic spectrum,” he said. “Army guys are traditionally in the business of blowing things up, standing on one hill and watching things explode on the other hill. But when I start slinging electrons, my soldiers say, ‘Where is it? I don’t see anything.’ EWPMT will allow us to show our leaders and commanders what’s happening in the spectrum. We’ll know where friendly emitters are, we’ll know where enemy emitters are and our commanders will start to be able to make informed decisions.”

The capability is crucial, Church said, as the Army forecasts a future in which it’s likely to face adversaries with robust electronic warfare capabilities of their own. He said having a clear map of a battlefield made up of radio waves will give commanders information ranging from where their logistics convoys are most likely to encounter radio-controlled IEDs to where their attacking forces might have their own communications jammed by an enemy’s EW tools.

EWPMT will also be used to help control the Multifunction Electronic Warfare system, the Army’s new integrated platform for electronic attack, soon to be fitted on many of the service’s traditional, kinetic weapons platforms.

“It’ll be remote and dynamically operated by the EW operator back in the operations center, and transparent to the soldier on the ground; he just knows he’s in his tank and he’s killing other tanks,” Church said. “Meanwhile, in the background, things are happening on his antenna, controlled by a guy hammering away on EWPMT based on all of the sensors he’s got and his ability to see what’s happening in the spectrum. The end result is that the tank platoon just has crystal-clear communications all the time. Part of the plan is also to use this to deliver cyber effects. How do you do that? You break the wire and use the RF spectrum to deliver a cyber effect.”

Church said Army leaders have been committed to reestablishing a credible EW program for several years now, but the new electronic warfare community took on greater cachet within the broader Army and DoD beginning in 2014, when alleged Russian “volunteers” invaded the Ukraine using, among other things, electronic warfare capabilities as part of an integrated information operations campaign.

“The enemy has EW equipment right now. I joke with a lot of folks that one of my favorite people right now is Vladimir Putin, because he’s given the Army EW program more traction than I ever could have,” he said. “One good thing is that now that the Russians are doing things in Ukraine and Syria, they have to turn their stuff on. So guess what I get to do? Watch them and learn from what they’re doing in the spectrum and their training and their equipment. They look at information operations as one integrated battlespace that they work in, and they’re good at it. They’re trained. And we will get there too.”

But in some ways “getting there” is a function of time. Since the Army allowed its electronic warfare program to lie dormant for two decades, Church is now the most senior electronic warfare officer in the entire service. And he only became certified as an EWO five years ago.

“The Army is committed, but you also have to realize that we haven’t done this for 25 years. So the best of us have all come in from a different career field — some from the infantry, some from field artillery, pick a branch,” he said. “We are back into the spectrum. We have the people, now we’ve got to figure out material solutions, get our formations right and get our leaders trained so that they trust the capabilities we deliver.”

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