Designing Electronic Warfare to Regain Airborne Military Dominance
For decades, military aircraft have relied on electronic warfare (EW) solutions to protect assets and dominate airspace. The ability of the United States to detect and track aircraft, or avoid detection has played a major role in its ability to project power globally and maintain freedom of operation in the air.
Today, that dominance is being challenged given the rapid advancements in, and widespread availability of, technology for adversaries. In order to make the best use of finite resources, EW solutions must be designed with a focus on flexibility and adaptability to meet quickly shifting threats today and in the future.
Electronic warfare solutions must be designed to dominate increasingly contested environments where multifunction, software-defined and reconfigurable solutions are needed to meet quickly shifting threats.
Available Tech Has Shifted Military Threats
Adversaries have long sought an opportunity to level the odds with American air superiority. The ability for U.S. aircraft to enter airspace with relative safety to execute their mission and return safely has been a major strategic asset. This superiority is beginning to erode as the rapid growth in processor speeds for computing technologies has brought new radar and electronic warfare capability to more countries around the world.
Over the past 60 years, we have seen approximately a one trillion-fold increase in computing performance in line with what has become known as Moore's Law where processing approximately doubles every two years.
Systems that used to be analog, expensive and difficult to upgrade are now being exchanged for digital operations. The faster processing speeds result in greater ability to collect and process information from a larger range of frequencies at a greater rate, thus increasing the threats facing U.S. and allied military platforms. These advancements are not theoretical.
New radars such as these are capable of simultaneously operating on more than one frequency band for more sophisticated information analysis. Our defense methods have to protect against all active channels at the same time in order to be effective. Our adversaries with the requisite resources are certainly capable of adopting the available technology and applying it towards their own means. Radar and EW systems being fielded today have the ability to shift in real-time and cover a wider array of spectrum, which means there is a wider range of threats to mitigate.
There is no reason to anticipate a decline in the rapid advancements of adversaries when it comes to EW. Indeed, it is more likely that adversaries will continue to invest, improvise and discover means for threatening U.S. warfighters that have yet to be seen.
The rise in advanced threats from adversaries comes in multiple formats besides radar detection to include attack methods, jamming, signals intelligence (SIGINT) and more. At the same time, U.S. forces have made updates to take full advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum for a variety of tactics from multiple airborne systems, such as communications, GPS, data collection, network systems and of course electronic warfare. The varied options to take advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum battlefield has created a crowded environment.
Alongside the rise of adversarial capabilities, the military is facing unique challenges and pressures internally. Defense budgets remain uncertain after a long period of increased spending and deployment. Leaders have continued to communicate that extending the lifecycles of legacy platforms such as the B-52 (expected to be more than 80 years) and the F/A-18 Hornets (expected to be more than 50 years) is necessary as budgets remain tight and costs for fielding a wide variety of next generation aircraft are untenable.
To keep these legacy platforms fully operational and ensure they are able to take on new and evolving adversarial capabilities, there are a distinct set of engineering challenges to overcome in structural and systems terms. When the systems were first designed, things such as computer aided design were not available yet. With decades old airframes, it is important to fit modifications into preexisting platforms without compromising structure and to make use of the available space.
Consequently, when it comes time for system sustainment work on a platform such as the F/A-18 fighter, engineers take a holistic approach to the work. They look at options for redesign and updates that meet current requirements for today and also take into consideration what opportunities exist for setting the units up for future updates.
Updated systems today are able to capitalize on features such as automated electronic countermeasures techniques that deny, disrupt, delay and degrade launch and engagement sequences.
Threats can be quickly identified, prioritized, countered and displayed to the aircrew for situational awareness as well as self-protection.
Looking to the Future
Increasingly, aircraft are tasked to fulfill multiple roles which require distinct, affordable and flexible EW capabilities. For example, an F-35 Lighting II could be tasked with a wide array of concurrent missions including air-to-air, air-to-ground, electronic attack and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, all on a single platform.
EW systems are quickly adapting to be able to complement this idea with the help of multifunctional hardware that enables operators to use software to define the functionality of a given system depending on the mission at hand.
Previous generations of EW solutions were designed with single-mission capabilities where multiple separate systems were needed to combat various threats and perform different functions which was complex, costly and did not afford operators the needed flexibility for future operations. Now, much like with commercial computing, military-grade hardware is becoming multifunctional to allow operators to choose software capabilities that will match their mission requirements as opposed to “ripping and replacing” entire systems. This means a single unit can alter its operating parameters, such as the waveforms it radiates, techniques, or timing, based on software definitions.
Software-defined capabilities allow for quicker upgrades, are more affordable and give more operational flexibility in contested environments as operators need only to update a program. For operational personnel in EW, this shift means incorporating the ability to change waveforms, techniques, and algorithms for systems in hours or days, rather than today's normal cycle of years.
Adopting multifunctional hardware and software-defined operations also opens the door to integrate more machine learning options for faster and more accurate decision-making. There has been a dramatic increase in speed at which modern digital electronics can shift operating modes and techniques as previously mentioned. EW systems need to adapt their use of EW hardware and software faster to keep up with the speed inherent in today's electronics.
Adaptive EW, meaning the use of machine learning processes and algorithms to collect, analyze and implement responses to RF threats, has emerged as the next phase in keeping the U.S. ahead of advancing threats.
Currently, EW systems are only able to provide automated responses to threats which are known to the databases that they are programmed to defend against. However, with the proliferation of information across the spectrum, and adversarial technique updates, it is increasingly likely that a system will encounter a threat that is unique or unknown. Adaptive solutions take the available information and make a recommendation on how to mitigate a threat at machine speeds, and the process is repeated until the correct defense is found. While this area represents a major step forward for aircraft operators by adding another layer of protection and situational awareness, it is still in its earliest development phase. Time will tell how and when this type of technology will be ready for widespread adoption.
The challenges to U.S. air superiority regarding electronic warfare are not insignificant. Rapid advancements and widespread availability of computing technology have made military air operations more difficult. However, current upgrades still offer tremendous advantages over adversaries using new multifunctional hardware and adaptive technology that enable us to maintain the advantage until the next generation of technology is fully operational.
When developing new products or making updates to existing solutions, using open systems architecture is increasingly important because it provides a framework for common interfaces and standards for avionics systems. Instead of needing to do a full redesign, or potentially replace an entire EW system, teams can update only the pieces that need to be refreshed such as transmitters, processors, receivers or amplifiers.
This process allows for iterative designing and upgrading of systems that is more cost-effective and allows for easier and faster implementation of new capabilities. The end results are systems that maintain reliably and protect aircrew and aircraft against advanced radio frequency (RF) threats. This protection enables enhanced survivability by allowing aircrews to concentrate on accomplishing their mission.
To deal with this increasingly contested domain all systems, not just EW, need to make the best use of finite space on an aircraft and enable the greatest range of operational capacity. There are a number of competing requirements for EW systems that make these design decisions incredibly difficult, especially when mission success and lives are on the line.
Redesigns and upgrades also provide opportunities for systems engineers to introduce Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) reduction while increasing the capability of the solution. SWaP reductions mean that there are more opportunities to integrate additional capabilities onto a given aircraft, or, the ability to outfit even smaller aircraft such as unmanned systems with EW capabilities.
Improvements focused on SWaP have also led to new options with EW systems designs. By miniaturizing a component down to the size of a deck of cards, it becomes a much more flexible option to integrate. Small form factor EW does not have the entire suite of capability as their larger cousins, however they do offer distribution and power flexibility which can be a massive benefit when retrofitting aircraft.
For example, small EW components could be deployed in a more distributed fashion. Instead of needing a single bay location, multiple units could be placed in open areas, freeing space for additional payloads. This distributed capability also means that should a single unit be damaged, the configuration would be able to shift workloads to others in the network to ensure that capability is not completely lost when damage occurs.
EW self-protection systems need to counter emerging threats over an aircraft lifecycle and repeated upgrades will continue to build in new capabilities for advanced counter-measures in response to modern threats, as well as new technologies to improve performance, maintainability, and supportability.