You are here

Gear + Tech

A New Wave of Warfare

The emerging field of electronic warfare has saved lives overseas by jamming the enemy’s ability to detonate IEDs. But its potential in the years ahead could stagger the imagination—one reason the Army is training a new breed of Soldiers in this specialty.

On a routine mission north of Baghdad in 2006, 28 KBR fuel tankers rolled down Route Sword on their way to Balad. They were escorted by six Humvees from the North Carolina National Guard’s 1451st Transportation Company, but because of the precious cargo, they still made for inviting targets to insurgents.

Suddenly, a light on the lead Humvee’s control panel started blinking, signaling that there was a possible radio transmission being jammed by the vehicle’s newly installed CREW device. As the Humvees continued along the route, the convoy commander radioed warnings to all truck commanders about a possible IED threat. Drivers stayed vigilant, and gunners stayed below the armor around their turrets.

A few seconds later, after the last vehicle passed through the danger area, a loud explosion rocked the rear of the convoy. A Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) had just detonated. The blast was heard and felt by the Soldiers in the convoy, but thanks to the CREW (Counter RCIED Electronic Warfare) system mounted on the Humvees, a radio transmission that was intended to detonate the RCIED was averted and no one was injured.

For the past six years, this scenario has played out all over Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to sophisticated advances in the Army’s newest career field, electronic warfare (EW). In response to the ever-present danger of IEDs used to attack U.S. personnel—the military reports that there were 8,159 IED incidents in Afghanistan in 2009, a 90 percent increase from the previous year—new high-tech devices and a special breed of professionally trained Soldiers are aggressively countering that threat.

The term electronic warfare can conjure up images of Soldiers hunched over computers in a dark and sterile room for hours at a time. But that’s far from the truth. EW-qualified Soldiers are on the frontlines, directly engaging the enemy with technology. It can be a thankless job, but one that saves lives.

“The U.S. Army has upped its game when it comes to eliminating the IED threat,” says Sergeant First Class Jason Bucklew of Tennessee’s 117th Regimental Training Institute. “I wish we had the current array of tools and skills available now during my first deployment to Iraq in 2003. It would have greatly reduced casualties.”

By definition, EW uses electromagnetic and directed energy to attack the enemy and to control the electromagnetic spectrum. That spectrum includes wireless signals, radio and television waves, microwaves, radar and lasers.

“Basically, it’s trying to wipe out the enemy without getting too dirty,” says Sergeant First Class Chad Brundige of the Tennessee National Guard’s 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Electronic warfare specialists use and manipulate these frequencies to gain an advantage in battle by locating, targeting, exploiting, disrupting, degrading or destroying an adversary’s electronic systems.

They can jam enemy radio transmissions to counter IEDs, disrupt enemy communications systems and apply a multitude of other skills that are still classified as secret.

“This career field and specialty is more complex than I could’ve ever imagined,” says Brundige. “Countering the remote-controlled IED threat is a large part of what we do, but there’s a lot more to it than just that.”

DISRUPTING THE RACE
The Army breaks down electronic warfare into three subdivisions: electronic attack, electronic support and electronic protection. The CREW systems that counter RCIEDs fall under electronic attack.

The details on how those systems work are intricate (for a basic understanding, see the graphic on p. 51), but one Soldier describes the process this way: “Imagine you are standing at the start line [of] a race. You are waiting for an announcer or race official to say, ‘On your mark, get set, go!’ As you get ready, and just before the race official starts giving directions, your friend standing close by runs up and starts screaming in your ear. Now, all you’ll hear is him yelling, and you can’t hear the race official give directions. Next thing you know, you missed the start of the race. Basically, your friend just jammed the directions given to you by the race official, and you failed to start on time. That’s what happens to the IED.”

It wasn’t always that way. Back in 2006, when IEDs rose in prominence as a tactic, those race directions were consistently getting through loud and clear, putting Soldiers in great peril. Even after RCIED equipment began to arrive, it took time to implement it correctly.

In February of that year, General Peter W. Chiarelli, who was then commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, sent a memorandum to the Pentagon warning officials that Soldiers did not have the expertise or training to operate the new equipment that was being rushed into Iraq to counter the IED threat.

“When I first got over there in 2004 and in 2005, we didn’t have any Army electronic warfare capabilities,” Chiarelli told The New York Times in a 2009 article. “It became deadly apparent in 2006, with the rise of IEDs. At the same time, we were having big problems with the jammers and how to deconflict them with all of the other radio and signals traffic.”

Heeding Chiarelli’s warning, the Army asked for help from the other service branches. The Navy responded by sending hundreds of Sailors who were electronic warfare specialists into Iraq. “They became the most important person in each formation down to the battalion level,” Chiarelli told The Times. “They were sought out by Soldiers who knew they had to learn this kind of warfare.”

These Sailors, along with EW specialists from the Air Force, showed Soldiers how to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum to their benefit. They established courses to teach Soldiers how to operate and maintain CREW devices and trained officers to manage programs at the brigade and division level.

The Navy and Air Force’s efforts were crucial to the Army’s success in Iraq, says Colonel Jim Ekvall, chief of the Army’s Electronic Warfare Division. “When the Army first encountered RCIEDs, there was no effective means to counter the threat, and the Air Force and the Navy came to the rescue,” he says. “Their material solutions to the problem, coupled with the Airmen and Sailors who initially provided Army EW integration and synchronization, saved many lives.”

But as time wore on, it became clear that the Army would need their own Soldiers trained in EW because the missions the Army traditionally tackles are different from those in the Air Force or Navy. They needed to have trained professionals to dominate land operations as they relate to operations and security over large geographical areas. As a result, the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, KS, conducted a study and concluded that “Army EW expertise is not only necessary for counterinsurgency efforts like OIF and OEF, but against the full range of potential adversaries.” By 2009, a new career field was established with its own MOS designation: the 29 series.

ACROSS THE SPECTRUM
The 29 series field initially opened up over 1,600 positions to Soldiers ranking from sergeant to colonel. Security clearance is required. Also, combat experience is preferred, says Chief Warrant Officer Four Brian Filibeck of the Combined Arms Center’s Electronic Warfare Proponent Office.

The Army plans to add another 2,300 positions over the next few years, giving it the largest electronic warfare force in the military. Training lasts from nine to 16 weeks and is held at Fort Sill, OK, home to the Army’s artillery school. Enlisted Soldiers are assigned to battalion-level and higher units upon graduation and have a full career path available all the way to E-9.

“The 29E course was the most academically challenging military school I’ve attended in my career,” Brundige says. “The timeline was grueling, and the most difficult part was learning the basic science of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Enlisted Soldiers (29E) will be subject matter experts at the battalion level and serve as the master trainer for all EW issues. Officers (29A) in this field will act as the principal staff officers with all the responsibilities concerning electronic warfare. Warrant officers (290A) organize, implement, monitor and evaluate operations, threat environment, unit maintenance and intermediate level support maintenance of EW systems.

Warrant Officer Jason Mounce of the Arkansas National Guard was one of the first eight warrant officers to graduate from the EW warrant officer school and be awarded the new MOS. “This was too good an opportunity to pass up,” he says. “It’s a new field, and I’m one of eight people in that field, and I like what EW is about.

“You might say this is the final frontier as far as battle is concerned,” Mounce adds. “You’re talking about computer networks, electronic communications, and no matter what [branch] you are, those are things that you’re depending upon. Even at the lowest level, you need a way to talk to your troops.”

One of the biggest concerns about the new field is that unit commanders don’t understand these new Soldiers’ roles within the unit. If Soldiers are successful, no IEDs go off, and no Soldiers are attacked. It’s difficult to measure success if the effects can’t be seen.

But EW Soldiers don’t just combat RCIEDs. They need to be involved in all aspects of planning and operations to make sure the unit is getting the best EW support needed. “It’s the job of EW Soldiers to ensure commanders are aware of the assets available to them,” Brundige says. “Regardless of rank, the 29E is an integral part of the decision-making process commanders have to go through. They are also instrumental in all phases of the military decision-making process.”

One unit that embraced EW from the beginning was the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment. In 2009, it was selected as the Outstanding U.S. Army Electronic Warfare Unit by the Association of Old Crows, a group that promotes electromagnetic spectrum operations. The members received the honor because they were the best unit to make use of its EW assets and training during day-to-day operations that year.

FUTURISTIC WARFARE
In the years ahead, as technologies advance, as our adversaries counter our counters, and as the overall conditions of combat change, electronic warfare will only grow in importance. “We must adapt and make trade-offs among systems originally designed for the Cold War and those required for current and future challenges,” President Barack Obama says. “We need greater investment in advanced technology … like unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare capabilities.”

According to Ekvall, the Army is developing an Integrated Electronic Warfare System, which is a family of new technologies that will have the ability to attack and disrupt the enemy’s command, control and communications ability. Experts are also developing technologies that will be able to jam anything, such as multimillion radar systems and aerial drone uplinks.

“It’s a family of systems that will operate in the full spectrum of conflict against a variety of targets,” Ekvall says. “Soldiers will have air, ground and fixed-site components.”

The Army also has other devices in production that seem like something out of a science fiction novel, including electromagnetic grenades, lasers for missile defense and devices that use microwaves to heat a person’s skin to uncomfortable levels. There are lethal and nonlethal uses, and the possibilities seem endless.

Ekvall sees the program growing and adapting over the next 10 years. “I see the relationship between EW and cyberspace, and all information-related functions such as Military Information Support Operations, Civil Affairs, Operations Security, and Military Deception, evolving right along with it,” he says.

Brundige agrees that electronic warfare will be a key element in fighting ever-growing cyber threats. Whatever the applications, however, Ekvall is sure of one thing.

“EW,” he says, “is here to stay.”

THE IMPACT OF IEDS OVERSEAS
100 IEDs were being detonated every day in Iraq in 2006.

23,000 IEDs detonated by insurgents in Iraq in 2007—more than any other year during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.

$45 billion Estimated amount spent (as of late 2011) on MRAPs to protect troops from IEDs.

$20 billion Amount, as of this year, that Congress has spent on IED research and training. 

FIGHTING IEDS ONE RADIO WAVE AT A TIME

Radio-controlled improvised explo sive devices (RCIEDs) allow insurgents to strike from a greater distance than manually operating the device, which is riskier for the insurgent.

To counter an RCIED threat, Soldiers use the vehiclemounted Counter RCIED Electronic Warfare (CREW) Duke system, which has saved countless lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– Story by CPT Darrin Haas; Photos by Adam Livingston