The Buzz

Beam Battles: The Return of Great Power Electronic Warfare

The Battle of the Beams was a period during World War II concerning German attempts to harness radio navigation for night bombing in the UK and the resulting British countermeasures. The British eventually managed to jam or distort all three iterations of German radio signals, making it more difficult for the bombers to hit their targets. That episode dramatically illustrates the ephemeral nature of advantages in electronic warfare, especially when operating against an agile and sophisticated foe.

Since the end of the Cold War and the onset of the War on Terror, the principal targets of Western military power have been relatively low-tech groups in the Middle East. Electronic warfare platforms like the U.S. Navy’s EA-6B Prowler were used to jam enemy communications during operations, and the relatively low tech of the enemy limited their ability to counter. But the constant threat to ground troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) led to the development of counter-IED jamming systems, and a new “invisible war” emerged. As quickly as vehicle-mounted jammers could be reprogrammed, insurgents made use of a variety of commercial technologies—cell-phones, key-fobs, door remotes—to adapt.

The focus of electronic warfare understandably changed to deal with the threat of the day, but a focus on counter-IED systems has had consequences for wider development. For example, the ALQ-99 jamming pod used on the Prowler, and on the new EA-18G Growler, was first used as far back as the Vietnam War and its successor is still years away.

A lack of new developments in electronic warfare since the end of the Cold War has led to a closing of the technological gap between the United States (and allies such as Australia), and potential adversaries such as Russia or China. This trend has been especially clear since Russian EW capabilities were used in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian land-based Krasukha-4 jamming system proved too much for the Ukrainians to handle, and was described by Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army units in Europe, as “eye-watering” in sophistication.

Last year, Russia deployed the Krasukha-4 to Syria in support of its operations there, along with its S-400 radar-guided missile system. The S-400 uses AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar to track multiple aerial targets out to 600km, and can fire supersonic missiles up to 400km. Russia is exporting the S-400 to China and India, and its predecessor platform, the S-300, is operated by several countries including China and Iran. Because of this proliferation, any conflict with Russia, China or even Iran is likely to involve a substantial electronic warfare component.

The Australian Defence Force will need new and advanced tactical EW capabilities to contribute in the event of conflict with an adversary that’s technologically capable. There are systems “on the way,” but there are a few things that strategists and observers should be aware of when considering the future of Australia’s EW capability.