Electronic Weapons: For A Few Billion More

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January 23, 2021: The U.S. Army is upgrading its tactical radios used by combat units to include new software that makes these radios more difficult to jam or locate. The army was responding to new jamming capabilities demonstrated by Russia and China, two countries that have been particularly eager to develop EW (Electronic Warfare) tools that could shut down or otherwise disrupt enemy (mainly Western) radio equipment. These latest upgrades were made possible by the earlier decision to adopt commercial radio technology to obtain new capabilities, rather than trying to develop the same tech just for the military. As a result, military radios have become cheaper, easier to upgrade and more competitive when it comes to dealing with problems like new jamming technologies and techniques. The new upgrades are based on testing existing radios against numerous new or anticipated enemy jamming techniques while noting and ranking the vulnerabilities. Because of the adoption of software based digital radios over the last decade these upgrades rarely require new hardware and are very inexpensive to implement.

These latest upgrade capabilities came after a painful and expensive period of failures while developing new military radios. The major shift occurred in 2012 when the army cancelled some of its own expensive and unsuccessful internal development projects. One example of this shift was the 2013 army decision to obtain new vehicle mounted radio for its combat units, and selection of ones based on existing commercial radio designs. The new MNVR (Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio) systems provided networking (including Internet-like capabilities) to army units. Each army combat brigade has 50-100 of the MNVR radios, which are used to establish a combat brigade network that hundreds of other military radios (of all sizes) can link to.

MNVR was a replacement for the JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System) Ground Mobile Radio (GMR), which was cancelled in 2011. The GMR development program cost over $6 billion and was a major embarrassment for the Department of Defense. Actually, JTRS still exists, on paper, but its goal, to provide better combat radios, has been accomplished by adopting civilian radios that do what the troops needed done and calling it JTRS. That’s what the new MNVR does, as it is a modified commercial radio. In the time the army spent working on JTRS some $11 billion was spent on buying more radios using existing designs and a lot of off-the-shelf equipment incorporating stuff JTRS was supposed to do. Sometimes the best solution is the one you were trying to avoid.

JTRS was yet another example of a military development project that got distracted, and bloated, trying to please everyone. There was, in a word, no focus. JTRS was the poster child of what usually goes wrong and how it impacts the combat troops. After all, radios are something everyone in the military depends on and uses a lot. The main problem with original JTRS spec was that the troops needed digital (for computer stuff) and analog (traditional radio) communications in one box, and it had to be programmable in order to handle new applications and the need to communicate with other radio types. That's what JTRS was supposed to do but it never happened. The procurement bureaucracy and government contractors consumed billions of dollars but never quite got anything useful out the door.

This new approach to military communications has since proven itself essential to keeping up. An example of this occurred unexpectedly in 2018 when the U.S. Army was forced to quickly develop and deploy a new EW system that could deal with new Russian EW weapons encountered in Ukraine and Syria over the previous few years. The army, continuing to use the rapid development and deployment methods implemented after 2001 (and now called the Rapid Capabilities Office), developed new hardware and software to detect, analyze and cope (to a certain extent) with a lot of the new EW capabilities Russia had put to work in Ukraine and Syria. None of the recent Russian EW gear was radically new stuff, but further developments of systems they had built during the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it was finally revealed that the EW pessimists in NATO, who warned that the Russians had EW gear NATO was unable to deal with because NATO leaders refused to believe what they were up against, were right. When improved versions of Russian Cold War EW gear began showing up in Ukraine and Syria, that served as a sobering wakeup call that was acted on this time.

NATO was fortunate that East European NATO members that used to be part of the Soviet empire were familiar with how Russian EW doctrine and equipment worked. Particularly useful was the Ukraine as a large number of Ukrainians who had worked on developing and building that Cold War EW tech and were now seeing it used against them by a resurgent Russia seeking to annex parts of Ukraine. The U.S. Army saw the opportunity and made the most of it. Russia also used a lot of their new EW gear in Syria, in part to impress potential customers and partly to get an idea of what Israel had. Unlike NATO, Israel did not underestimate Russian EW capabilities during the Cold War because Russian sold some of that EW equipment to Arab states who had a few opportunities to use it on Israel.

The new 2018 EW gear was issued to U.S. troops in Europe within a few months and then to units worldwide. The new EW equipment is made to be easily and quickly updated because modern EW systems depend a lot on surprise, as in coming up with some new technique and gaining a battlefield advantage until the enemy counters it. This is nothing new but the last time it was seen operating on a large scale in combat was during World War II, when the aerial bombing campaign (and to a lesser extent anti-submarine and surface warfare operations at sea) saw constant introduction of new EW tools that provided an edge until the other side quickly, often in weeks, came up with a counter. The U.S. Air Force never really forgot that but the army, despite lots of warnings, seemed to believe that tech would never be a major factor in ground combat. That attitude took time to change.

The new American EW gear consists of several separate systems. First there is VROD, a sensor system that constantly monitors the electromagnetic spectrum for known or potential threats. This depends on a regularly updated threat library built into the system as well algorithms for noticing potential new threats not yet in the library. Then there is VMAX, which is a tool to probe possible threats and provide some countermeasure capability. To control all this information there is EWPMT (EW Planning and Management Tool) and the first of many EWPMT add-ons. The first of these is called Raven Claw and it enables EWPMT users to operate on the move and even without a network connection. There is more, either delivered without being mentioned in a press release or still in development.

This EW crisis, and the fact that solutions were in the works, first became news during late 2017 when the U.S. Army asked Congress to allow it to revise its budget to deal with some serious network vulnerabilities. Specifically, the army needed to halt work on its battlefield Internet, known as WIN-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical) so that some changes can be made to ensure the system is not only more resistant to hacking and jamming but also capable of being patched (software fixes applied) much more quickly. Many in Congress were upset about this but those few with access to the classified briefings were not. Nor were many military personnel working on communications and EW. The army specified a potential Russian threat and it was known China catching up in this area. Civilian users of the Internet are constantly warned about new security threat to wireless access to the Internet and the military is not immune to these new threats.

But as the most recent army move indicates the advantages of battlefield electronics and Internet capabilities comes with new dangers, many of them not encountered during all the combat American troops have been involved in after 2001. Now the prospect of combat with a well-equipped (“near peer”) force is closer to reality than at any time since the 1980s. That means more skilled Internet hackers and at least the U.S. Army detected and responded to the threat. WIN-T, the initial army Internet system, eventually got replaced instead of just modified because the commercial tech development, moved faster than the military could. As it does more and more.

 


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