Cognitive Electronic Warfare Could Revolutionize How America Wages War With Radio Waves

 In Forces & Capabilities, Threats

The holy grail of this concept is electronic warfare systems that can spot new or otherwise unexpected threats and immediately begin adapting to them.


The U.S. mil­i­tary, like many others around the world, is invest­ing significant time and resources into expand­ing its electronic warfare capabilities across the board, for offen­sive and defen­sive pur­pos­es, in the air, at sea, on land, and even in space. Now, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence mean that elec­tron­ic war­fare sys­tems, no matter what their spe­cif­ic func­tion, may all ben­e­fit from a new under­ly­ing con­cept known as advanced “Cognitive Electronic Warfare,” or Cognitive EW. The main goal is to be able to increas­ing­ly auto­mate and oth­er­wise speed up crit­i­cal process­es, from ana­lyz­ing elec­tron­ic intel­li­gence to devel­op­ing new elec­tron­ic war­fare mea­sures and coun­ter­mea­sures, poten­tial­ly in real-time and across large swathes of net­worked plat­forms.

Over the Horizon, an online jour­nal that offi­cers and aca­d­e­mics from the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College estab­lished, pub­lished an inter­est­ing piece on the prin­ci­ples behind Cognitive EW and the poten­tial ben­e­fits of its appli­ca­tion on July 3, 2020. The arti­cle, which Air Force Major John Casey wrote, is worth reading in full

In addi­tion to present­ly being a stu­dent at the Army Command and General Staff College, Casey has mul­ti­ple deploy­ments under his belt as an Electronic Warfare Officer on the RC-135U Combat Sent intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and recon­nais­sance air­craft, giving him a direct oper­a­tional insight into many elec­tron­ic war­fare issues. 

The RC-135U, of which the Air Force has just two, is specif­i­cal­ly con­fig­ured to gather elec­tron­ic and sig­nals intel­li­gence, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on col­lect­ing data regard­ing adver­saries’ radars. These air­craft scoop up infor­ma­tion about elec­tron­ic sig­na­tures to help com­man­ders build so-called “electronic orders of battle” detail­ing the dis­po­si­tion of an oppo­nen­t’s air defens­es. This includes detect­ing and clas­si­fy­ing threat emit­ters, and pin­point­ing their loca­tions, among other elec­tron­ic intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing capa­bil­i­ties. 

A brief­ing slide explain­ing the func­tions of the RC-135U’s crew mem­bers, as just one exam­ple of the kinds of elec­tron­ic and sig­nals intel­li­gence that the US mil­i­tary col­lects on a reg­u­lar basis. ASE stands for Airborne Systems Engineer.

“In the last two decades, the U.S. advan­tage in the EMS [elec­tro­mag­net­ic spec­trum] domain fal­tered due to years of aus­tere bud­gets result­ing in a stag­na­tion of EW sys­tems devel­op­ment. The 17 years of oper­at­ing in a highly per­mis­sive envi­ron­ment incul­cat­ed a lack of EMS mind­ful­ness in weapon system devel­op­ment and oper­a­tional plan­ning,” Casey notes in his piece. “Adversaries, study­ing how the US fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, devel­oped doc­trine and weapons to counter the asym­met­ric advan­tages in the EMS domain. The US stands now at an EW dis­ad­van­tage.”

The var­i­ous branch­es of the U.S. mil­i­tary are mind­ful of this real­i­ty and have all made impor­tant strides for­ward in devel­op­ing and field­ing new electronic warfare systems to conduct electronic attacks, such as jam­ming enemy radars, com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, or incoming threats, as well as those able to defend against those kinds of attacks. Some ser­vices, the U.S. Navy in particular, have certainly been more active in this field than others.

However, a number of core under­ly­ing process­es remain unchanged in fun­da­men­tal ways from how they were car­ried out at the dawn of modern elec­tron­ic war­fare during the Second World War. While the tech­nol­o­gy and tac­tics involved have improved since 1945, var­i­ous U.S. mil­i­tary assets, such as Casey’s RC-135U, are still charged with probing the capabilities of adversaries and poten­tial adver­saries, and grab­bing infor­ma­tion about signal emit­ters of all sorts, from radars to radios to data-shar­ing net­works and more. While the crews of the Combat Sents, and other plat­forms charged with these intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing mis­sions, can con­duct some initial analysis of this information, or use it for an imme­di­ate tac­ti­cal ben­e­fit, such as geolo­cat­ing enemy forces on the bat­tle­field below, it then typ­i­cal­ly falls to per­son­nel in spe­cial­ized facil­i­ties to fully exploit that data. 

A look inside an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, which also has exten­sive elec­tron­ic and sig­nals intel­li­gence capa­bil­i­ties.

Those ana­lysts and engi­neers will need to spend time pick­ing apart the intel­li­gence to deter­mine the capa­bil­i­ties of hos­tile sys­tems and figure out what it might take to counter them. The devel­op­ment of jamming systems on aircraft and ships, for instance, requires know­ing things like what radars bands an oppo­nent is using or what sig­nals an incom­ing mis­sile or some other threat is homing in on. Similarly, this data is nec­es­sary to devel­op new friend­ly weapon sys­tems that can brush off incoming electronic attacks.

The obvi­ous issue is that all of this takes time. In an actual con­flict, an oppo­nent may deploy never before seen electronic warfare systems and tac­tics or use certain types against U.S. forces that might not necessarily have the right weapons or other equipment on hand to mit­i­gate their effects imme­di­ate­ly. Those units would remain vul­ner­a­ble for how­ev­er long it takes to devel­op new elec­tron­ic war­fare sys­tems, modify exist­ing ones, or oth­er­wise source the appro­pri­ate gear, which might be in short supply, nec­es­sary to respond to those emer­gent chal­lenges.

A prime his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of this is the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radi­a­tion mis­sile. First employed during the Vietnam War, the seeker head was pre-pro­grammed to home in on a spe­cif­ic radar band or set of radar bands. If a plane was car­ry­ing a mis­sile set to zero in on one type of radar, but stum­bled upon anoth­er, that was just too bad. If the North Vietnamese air defend­ers were capa­ble of mod­u­lat­ing their radars fre­quen­cies out­side the band­width of the seeker, they might be able to escape destruc­tion. 

In the end, the Navy devel­oped 10 sub­vari­ants of the AGM-45A and AGM-45B mis­siles, each tuned to dif­fer­ent bands and with other counter-coun­ter­mea­sures. Planes would fly mis­sions with a mix­ture of types to give them the best chance of having the one they needed. Needless to say, this was a sub­op­ti­mal arrange­ment and subsequent anti-radiation missiles fea­tured broadband seekers and were, as a result, sig­nif­i­cant­ly more flex­i­ble.

An AGM-45 Shrike anti-radi­a­tion mis­sile.

This is where Cognitive EW comes in. At its most basic, this con­cept revolves around the idea of being able to detect and cat­e­go­rize the sig­nals that an oppo­nent is using, for what­ev­er pur­pose, and then use machine learn­ing and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence algo­rithms to help fur­ther auto­mate the process of devel­op­ing coun­ter­mea­sures and counter-coun­ter­mea­sures. A com­put­er system, espe­cial­ly one with an ever-grow­ing library of elec­tron­ic sig­na­ture data col­lect­ed from a wide array of sources, could parse through that infor­ma­tion much faster than a human, or even a team of humans depend­ing on the volume of avail­able intel­li­gence, rapid­ly iden­ti­fy­ing items of inter­est for fur­ther analy­sis and exploita­tion. It may even be able to start doing some of that follow-on work by itself after iso­lat­ing the impor­tant data.

“In the near term, proven EW plat­forms within the land, mar­itime, air, and space domains would host cog­ni­tive EW capa­bil­i­ties as part of their detec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion suite. Onboard these plat­forms organ­i­cal­ly col­lect­ed and off-board feeds would pro­vide spec­trum domain aware­ness and emit­ter char­ac­ter­i­za­tion to these plat­forms host­ing cog­ni­tive EW toolk­its,” he explains in his arti­cle. “Forward and remote oper­a­tors aided by cog­ni­tive EW toolk­its would scru­ti­nize the EMS feeds off the sen­sors to rapid­ly char­ac­ter­ize the spec­trum and when nec­es­sary, imme­di­ate­ly start the devel­op­ment [of] coun­ter­mea­sures.”

The basic prin­ci­ples behind Cognitive EW aren’t new, some­thing Major Casey notes him­self, but advances in com­put­ing, as well as the near-con­stant minia­tur­iza­tion of that tech­nol­o­gy, have made it increas­ing­ly more prac­ti­cal for use out­side of a lab­o­ra­to­ry envi­ron­ment. As time goes on, the hope is that it will be pos­si­ble to inte­grate this tech­nol­o­gy within elec­tron­ic war­fare sys­tems them­selves, allow­ing them to mod­u­late how they oper­ate auto­mat­i­cal­ly and do so extreme­ly fast, even in real-time in the middle of an oper­a­tion, based on infor­ma­tion they’re col­lect­ing, as well as receiv­ing from off­board sources via any number of plat­forms net­worked togeth­er. Casey describes this as the “holy grail” of this capa­bil­i­ty.

“As cog­ni­tive EW tech­nol­o­gy matures, these toolk­its would be embed­ded in for­ward strike plat­forms to better sense, iden­ti­fy, attribute, and share the cur­rent state of EMS envi­ron­ment between all forces and across all domains,” he con­tin­ues. “These actions would allow blue forces to rapid­ly maneu­ver within the spec­trum and deny­ing [sic] the adver­sary the use of the spec­trum that they are not able to recov­er.”

Williams Foundation

A brief­ing slide giving a very rudi­men­ta­ry overview of the elec­tro­mag­net­ic “domain” as it applies to US Marine Corps oper­a­tions. This gives a gen­er­al sense of the areas where Cognitive EW might get applied for both offen­sive and defen­sive pur­pos­es by the US mil­i­tary broad­ly.

If one or more branch­es of the U.S. mil­i­tary isn’t already employ­ing advanced Cognitive EW on some level, there is clear evi­dence of work that will create a valu­able infra­struc­ture to sup­port the con­cept in the near term. The Navy’s secre­tive Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors pro­gram, or NEMESIS, an effort aimed at devel­op­ing an entire net­worked elec­tron­ic war­fare “ecosys­tem,” sounds par­tic­u­lar­ly well suited for col­lect­ing and pro­cess­ing sig­na­ture infor­ma­tion where Cognitive EW sys­tems can start pick­ing them apart and rapid­ly deploy­ing uni­fied elec­tron­ic war­fare tac­tics tai­lored to the sit­u­a­tion. This would occur across multi-domains of war­fare — air, sea, under­sea, and even land ‑across a diverse array of plat­forms that are tight­ly net­worked togeth­er. In effect, cre­at­ing seam­less elec­tron­ic war­fare effects across the bat­tle­space, unlike any­thing that has come before it. In fact, it is hard to imag­ine NEMESIS work­ing with­out some level of advanced Cognitive EW at the center of the archi­tec­ture.

We at The War Zone noted how crit­i­cal net­worked EW con­cepts will be in our exclu­sive fea­ture on the game-chang­ing NEMESIS pro­gram, which you can find here, writ­ing:

“As more nations devel­op and refine their advanced inte­grat­ed sensor net­works, next-gen­er­a­tion EW ‘sys­tems of sys­tems’ such as NEMESIS will become more vital to pro­tect­ing the U.S. and allied assets and for giving them a leg up by being able to direct­ly manip­u­late what the enemy believes is occur­ring on the bat­tle­space based on their own sen­sors’ data. As such, NEMESIS can help level the play­ing field against increas­ing­ly capa­ble sensor net­works, whether by blind­ing cer­tain parts of those net­works while spoof­ing others or by having the enemy fire its trea­sured weapon­ry at ghosts in the sea and in the air. Even a for­ma­tion of what appears to be an incom­ing bomber force on radar and a puz­zling group of bright sig­na­tures on infrared sen­sors could draw the ene­my’s atten­tion away from crit­i­cal parts on a real offen­sive.

Yes, much of this sounds almost like magic, and it is prob­a­bly the clos­est thing the mil­i­tary has to it…”

It seems very plau­si­ble, if not prob­a­ble, that some form of advanced Cognitive EW is the engine behind making a con­cept like NEMESIS a real­i­ty. 

Major Casey also notes that Cognitive EW capa­bil­i­ties could be placed in tra­di­tion­al intel­li­gence pro­cess­ing cen­ters to auto­mate and oth­er­wise help speed up the analy­sis of new elec­tron­ic sig­na­tures, as well as the cre­ation of new elec­tron­ic war­fare sys­tems or the improve­ment of exist­ing ones. The increas­ing use of open-architecture and modular systems that allow for the rapid inte­gra­tion of addi­tion­al and upgrad­ed capa­bil­i­ties for var­i­ous pieces of equip­ment, as well as the intro­duc­tion of advanced high-band­width, long-range communications and data-sharing networks, will make it easier and easier to get those updates to assets in the field on short notice.

“Like flakes of gold hidden in a riverbed, the com­put­er would sift the end­less flow of sig­nals look­ing for the sig­na­tures of the unknown. These elu­sive sig­nals are nor­mal­ly flagged by hand with ana­lyst spelunk­ing through the spec­trum look­ing for the traces of the exotic,” Casey says, high­light­ing how there will still be a need for actual human spe­cial­ists to sup­port this work. “Eventually, as con­nec­tiv­i­ty between plat­forms becomes more ubiq­ui­tous, detec­tion and coun­ter­mea­sure pro­files would be pushed [to oper­a­tional ele­ments] within min­utes and sec­onds.”

The immense poten­tial ben­e­fits of Cognitive EW are clear. The entire cycle of devel­op­ing and field­ing coun­ter­mea­sures and counter-coun­ter­mea­sures to hos­tile elec­tron­ic war­fare capa­bil­i­ties could be dra­mat­i­cal­ly sped up in favor of American forces. It would also help mit­i­gate the sudden appear­ance of new threats at crit­i­cal junc­tures and make it harder for oppo­nents to plan their own warfight­ing activ­i­ties in the elec­tro­mag­net­ic spec­trum.

“The EMS knows no limits and the pho­tons do not care about threat envelopes, fire sup­port coor­di­na­tion lines, nation­al inter­ests, or bound­aries,” Casey writes in clos­ing his own piece. “Cognitive EW is the first step to create rapid, focused, and unex­pect­ed actions within the EMS domain to gen­er­ate sit­u­a­tions in which the enemy cannot react fast enough to over­come the advance.”

All told, Cognitive EW holds the excit­ing promise of being a game-chang­er for the U.S. mil­i­tary that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize how American forces oper­at­ing in the air, at sea, on land, or any­where else, could exploit the elec­tro­mag­net­ic spec­trum right in the thick of combat.

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