Once upon a time, as the story goes, there was a capability known as Electronic Warfare (EW) in the RAAF. It was the home of PowerPoint slides with lightning bolts connecting everything in new and exciting ways. Few truly understood how EW worked or what it could do.
Fighting in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is no longer a skill for a small cadre of specialists. It is becoming increasingly clear as the RAAF transitions into a 5th generation air force that this is a fight for all members. It will require not only a change of platforms, which is already well underway, but also a change in headspace for the personnel operating these capabilities.
“Put simply, EW is now starting to permeate all aspects of Australian air power operations,” according to Wing Commander Travis Hallen of the RAAF’s Air Power Development Centre in the wake of the Williams Foundation EW seminar last year. “No longer is it possible for our airmen to delegate understanding of EMS operations to a small cadre of expert EW operators (EWOs), they must become EMS natives, alive to the criticality of the spectrum to their operations, regardless of the mission they are conducting.
“To quote Group Captain Braz (OC 82 Wing), ‘the question isn’t who is an EW operator. The question is, are you an operator in an age of EW?’ This is not to suggest that specialised EWOs are no longer required, quite the opposite. As the complexity of EMS operations grows, ensuring that we have sufficient trained and experienced subject matter experts to guide the development and employment of specialised EW capabilities will be critical.
“What is required of Australian airmen now is to understand that the EMS is not just an important consideration in their mission planning, but a critical domain that will determine their success or failure in future operations.”
ADM senior correspondent Julian Kerr explores the evolution of EW this month (see P26 for more), confirming that EW war fighting has been in the mix for some time now, but the opportunities presented by new technologies, particularly the partnering of the Growler with the JSF, will take time to exploit fully.
It’s always been difficult to explain the edge that operating in an EW-saturated environment can have without resorting to PowerPoint slides with lightning bolts connecting everything. Perhaps what many non-specialists fail to see is the kinetic effects EW can have.
The jamming or spoofing aspect of EW is growing in importance as asymmetric threats against conventional forces become commonplace. Jamming or degrading an enemy ‘s access to the EMS can expand the options available to a commander. For example, stand-off electronic support may be useful in degrading an air defence network or a specific air defence site’s radars or communications sufficiently to allow special forces insertion, or to support a high value asset extraction, unseen. It’s another valuable tool in the box for both defensive and offensive activities.
Once again, smart people, both in uniform and in the industry that support them, underpin the wider EW capability. The uniformed presence in the RAAF, both as operators and maintainers, are transitioning between many platforms; P-3s to P-8s, Classic Hornets to Super Hornets and Growlers, and the introduction into service of the C-27J recently to name a few. And Australia’s first two JSFs will arrive at the end of the year.
RAAF platforms, and the training pipelines that feed them, are getting more complex as the technology built into them becomes more complex. Industry is playing a role in the evolutionary path of many of these technologies. R&D efforts in industry are pushing the laws of physics when it comes to the exploitation of the EMS.
A note that readers might want to look up the Air Power Development Centre’s 2018 Conference Air Power in a Disruptive World next month in Canberra which will explore this concept alongside the effects of other disruptive technologies.