Too many different electronic signals interacting in unexpected ways is a growing problem on modern battlefields. Despite recognizing and continuing to encounter the problem since 1990, efforts to come up with solutions continue to lag behind the discovery of new ways for electronic transmissions to interact in unexpected and often troublesome ways. This is not just a problem with maintaining control and video feed links with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), but also the growing number of new military radios, sensors and EW (Electronic Warfare) systems. Problems here are sometimes deadly.
The latest manifestation of the problem centers on the growing number of UAV systems operating in the combat zone. It’s not just the sheer number of systems but the growing variety of systems and new technologies some use. The popularity of commercial UAVs (especially quad-copters) and all manner of consumer electronics in the combat zone has caused a new category of interference with military systems that continues to baffle, amaze and demoralize users of all this gear.
This is one reason Western EW specialists have been spending a lot of time in Syria and eastern Ukraine A particularly intense and complex environment has developed in eastern Syria where new electronic systems from the American, Russians, Iranians and Israelis continue to enter service or attempt to enter service despite disruptive encounters with unexpected electronic environments that lead to erratic performance and often tragic failures. This is not a problem but an opportunity to identify the problems before doing so in combat. In a high-intensity war, any situations you don’t anticipate can have a fatal or catastrophic impact on your forces.
In hindsight, the problem could be seen in action as long ago as World War II, especially the intense, complex and unpredictable combat environment over Western Europe during World War II. The mass use of heavy bombers, especially at night, saw a growing number of new and different sensors, wireless navigation aids and, before too long, electronic countermeasures. This was the infancy of many of these electronic systems. Between 1940 and 45 development and implementation of new systems took place with unprecedented speed. While the development work and opportunities for unexpected surprises rapidly declined with the end of the war, the development and use of many similar commercial systems continued. It was the commercial developments after 1945 that, over several decades, provided new ideas and technologies for the military to adopt or adapt when needed.
The dangers of these unanticipated electronic conflicts became very real between 1990 and 2003 as there were a growing number of battlefield losses or near misses because of electronic signal interacting in unanticipated ways. For example in 2003 American Patriot anti-aircraft missiles shot down two coalition aircraft in Iraq and almost brought down a third because of the unexpected ways friendly electronic systems interacted. The problem was initially blamed on software that was unable to distinguish between incoming enemy missiles and friendly aircraft returning from a mission. The friendly aircraft were equipped with IFF (Identify, Friend or Foe) electronic devices that send out a signal to warn friendly anti-aircraft systems not to fire. The IFF did not work as expected and the Patriots were set to fire automatically (as incoming missiles would be moving too fast for a human operator to make the call.)
When it was determined what had actually happened historians, or engineers with long careers and good memories pointed out that this was not the first time complex electronic systems worked in unexpected ways in combat. Electrical engineers have known, since early in the 20th century, that electronic signals can, in unexpected combinations, produce unpredictable and unexpected results. This has become a growing problem in the last two decades of the 20th century as more radars and electronic warfare systems were put into service. Air defense systems, like the American Patriot, were particularly dangerous because, to be effective against high-speed missiles, Patriot has to be on "automatic." This is a known danger because when you go to war, you bring together a lot of friendly, and enemy, electronic gear that has never been used in close proximity before. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, it was found that Patriot electronic systems interacted in unexpected ways when certain friendly jamming systems were used nearby. In one instance, American aircraft flying north, over Patriot batteries, found that when their jamming systems were tested (a standard procedure before entering hostile air space), those signals would sometimes trigger a nearby Patriot battery to automatically identify the passing aircraft as hostile and prepare to fire on it. The Patriot operators were usually able to stop the firing sequence before missiles were launched, and pilots had to be warned not to test their electronic gear while flying near a Patriot battery. This turned out to be more than a problem to be solved but as a foretaste of many more of these problems to show up during future wars.
But there's still another problem that is not much talked about by pundits. Basically, all these electronic devices, be they radars, IFF, electronic warfare gear or whatever, do not operate in a world of black and white, but rather shades of gray. Radars, for example, are subject to all manner of interference and lowered performance. In many cases, especially in combat, what you see on your radar screen is what might be there, not what is 100 percent-definitely there. This is why commercial aircraft carry a powerful electronic beacon ("transponder") that continuously broadcasts the aircrafts location and identity. This is a lot safer than depending on radar alone. But in combat, conditions are always less than ideal.
Take counterbattery radar, for example. These radars spot incoming shells and rockets, and plot where they were fired from (so your artillery battery can counter that fire, thus "counterbattery"). These radars have a lot of false positives, despite decades of tweaking the software and hardware. But it's better to have some false positives than to allow shells to get in without being properly tracked and the source of the fire identified. False positives by counterbattery radars rarely result in fatalities, but false signals from anti-missile systems are another matter, as was discovered during 2003 in Iraq. Such problems persist because, as quickly as solutions are found, new electronic devices appear, usually only when you've gone to war. Getting various services and nations to bring their electronic systems together periodically just to test for these fatal glitches hasn't even gotten to the proposal stage. It's too expensive, and the number of lives actually lost doesn't justify the cost when there are so many more demanding projects that need the money (like better medical gear, or better weapons.)
Back in the 1990s, everyone was warned to expect more of the electronic unexpected. What happened in 1991 and 2003 were not exceptions, they were inevitable and the problems continued to the present.