In a world where long-range guided missiles and sophisticated radars are the norm, analysts and lawmakers are urging the Pentagon to rethink the way it operates in the electromagnetic spectrum to gain new advantages over near-peer competitors, such as Russia and China.
|An E-6B Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System takes to the skies, Aug. 18, 2007.|
Over the past few decades, competitors’ advancements in sensor and missile technology have forced the US military to operate farther and farther away from its intended targets, according to a report released this week by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA). The Pentagon must shift toward using low-power countermeasures to defeat enemy sensors, as well as low-power sensors and communications.
During a Dec. 2 event on Capitol Hill to release the report, the report's co-authors and CSBA senior fellows Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark said the military must invest in technology to avoid detection and confuse enemy air defenses — for instance stealth aircraft, electronic jammers and decoys. Cheap, expendable unmanned vehicles, in the air or undersea, are crucial to this approach, they said.
Much of this technology is already fielded, but the Pentagon is not using it to its full potential, Clark stressed. Advancements like electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, the Navy’s Next-Generation Jammer and the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program — an upgrade of the SLQ-32 shipboard electronic warfare (EW) system — are a good start. But the military could do much more with these systems, Clark said.
“So these new systems are coming out with these new technologies, but they are not necessarily being used in a way that exploits those new technologies — they are going to be used in a way that simply mimics how the predecessor system was used,” Clark said. “New operational concepts are necessary to leverage the technologies we’re already fielding.”
The Pentagon must invest in improving networking between the individual systems, agility in frequency and power, multi-functionality and miniaturization, Clark said. For example, operators could take a sophisticated jammer, currently deployed on an existing aircraft, and install it on a low-cost, expendable UAV that could penetrate farther into enemy territory.
Gunzinger blamed a “stove-piped” acquisition process, both within and between the armed services, for slowing progress in developing new concepts of operations in electronic warfare.
“That kind of a structure doesn’t really facilitate — it’s not conducive to the development of multifunction capabilities, such as an array that can act as a radar or a jammer or [do] cyber, and perhaps other missions, all in one package,” Gunzinger said. “Who is going to be the guru who is the champion for developing a new capability across the DoD?”
Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Va., Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I., also spoke at the event.
One major program the Pentagon could rethink is the Air Force’s much-delayed effort to recapitalize its Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet, Gunzinger told Defense News before to the official report release. In a highly networked, contested environment, it does not make sense to use a non-stealthy business jet for battlefield management, he said.
Although the Air Force has used JSTARS to great effect in the Middle East over the past few decades, the operational concept of the plane is “already untenable,” Clark said.
“JSTARS is getting flown really hard in places like the Middle East where there’s no threat, and even that is starting to be constrained because there’s places that it can’t fly anymore because of the air threat in Syria and from Iran and the air threat from Russia,” Clark said.
Some offices in the Pentagon are examining whether the military needs a dedicated, manned aircraft to conduct both battle management and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), Gunzinger said. US forces might do better to disaggregate the ISR and battle management missions, he suggested. UAVs can conduct ISR undetected in enemy territory by using passive or low-power sensors, while ground or sea forces can do battle management from outside the immediate engagement area.
“When you start to think that the air environment in particular is becoming increasingly contested, certainly in the Pacific, certainly in Europe, certainly in the Persian Gulf region … you have to ask, well, how are you going to use this in the future in those environments, and is it worth it, frankly?” Gunzinger said.
JSTARS is particularly vulnerable to proliferating threats like Russia’s S-400 air defense system that can easily detect the aircraft’s high-power radar, Clark said.
Gunzinger and Clark’s comments on JSTARS echo concerns voiced recently by outgoing Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante. The Pentagon may scrap the existing recapitalization program and go back to the drawing board, LaPlante said Nov. 24.
“There’s still debate in the building, outside the Air Force, on whether you do this or you do other things,” he said, explaining that some people want to trade JSTARS for unmanned platforms like Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk remotely piloted surveillance aircraft.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh framed the debate over JSTARS differently, arguing that combatant commanders want the capability, but budget reality may force the Pentagon to postpone the program.
“The question is where does it fit in the priorities of things? To the combatant commanders it’s high on the priority list, but so are a lot of other things,” Welsh said Dec. 1 at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council. “If there are people in the department that think there’s a different way to provide this capability for less money, we should have a debate about that.”
The Air Force will continue to “push hard” to fund the JSTARS recapitalization program in the fiscal 2017 budget, but nothing is certain, Welsh said.