After watching Russia's and Ukraine's electronic warriors battle it out, the US military wants to 'dial up' up its own 'jamming power'

  • The Russian and Ukrainian militaries have made extensive use of electronic-warfare capabilities.

  • Both sides have used EW to interfere with the other's communications and drones, among other tasks.

  • The US military is watching that unfold and intensifying efforts to improve its own EW capabilities.

Electronic warfare has become a major factor in the Ukraine war, with each side using it to jam the other's radios and radars and to knock their drones out of the sky.

The value of electronic-warfare capabilities is not a new lesson, but the war in Ukraine has shown how quickly those capabilities — and means of countering them — have evolved. That's why the US Air Force is eager to deploy a new generation of electronic-warfare aircraft and drones.

In September, the Air Force received its first test EC-37B Compass Call. A Gulfstream G550 business jet modified to conduct electronic-warfare operations, the EC-37 is set to replace the aging EC-130, which is a modified C-130 cargo plane that dates back to the mid-1970s.

Two aircraft on the ground.
EC-130H and an EC-37B electronic-warfare aircraft.L3Harris

Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, which organizes, trains, and equips US Air Force units, told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association conference in September that the "bottom line is we need it to enable our ships and aircraft to get closer by electromagnetic protection and [by] electronic attack make it more difficult for adversary ships and aircraft to operate across" the electromagnetic spectrum.

Militaries have been investing in the secretive world of electronic warfare since World War II. The US Air Force uses electronic warfare as an umbrella term that includes electronic attack (such as jamming enemy radios or anti-radiation missiles to destroy enemy radar), electronic-warfare support to locate and identify enemy transmitters, and electromagnetic protection against an enemy's electronic attack.

In the air campaigns of the Vietnam and Arab-Israeli wars, jamming and anti-jamming of air-defense radars and antiaircraft weapons played a major role, but during the fighting in Ukraine — on land and in the air — electronic warfare has become as powerful as tanks and jets.

Vehicles with tall poles attached to them.
A Russian R-330Zh Zhitel electronic-warfare station in an exercise in July 2018.Denis Abramov/Russian Defense Ministry via

Ukraine and Russia constantly try to jam each other's radio communications and disrupt or spoof GPS signals that guide smart artillery shells. To stop the armadas of small reconnaissance and attack drones that constantly orbit the battlefield, it's cheaper to disrupt their command links, which causes them to crash, than it is to use scarce air-defense munitions to shoot them down.

"You have to have capability that's EW resistant, and you need to have offensive EW capability that's configurable, because the enemy's going to make advancements," Gen. James Rainey, head of US Army Futures Command, told reporters at the Association of the United States Army's annual conference this month.

Doug Bush, the Army's acquisition chief, told reporters in August that the Army had several projects underway to upgrade its electronic-warfare capabilities, and the war in Ukraine had added "urgency" to those efforts.

The Army was "fundamentally reinvesting in rebuilding our tactical electronic-warfare capability after that largely left the force over the last 20 years," Bush added.

Soldiers setting up portable packs.
US Army electronic-warfare specialists set up portable jamming packs at Fort Bliss in Texas in December 2018.Staff Sgt. Felicia Jagdatt

For the Air Force, the role of the new EC-37B would not be "overly different than what the EC-130's been doing for air superiority," Kelly said. "We just need it to move around a large expanse of airspace, and we'll be using advanced techniques to make sure we can operate" in the electromagnetic spectrum, he said.

The aircraft itself is an improvement over its predecessor. Air and Space Forces magazine reported that the EC-37B was "faster, more economical, capable of higher altitude operations, and more survivable than the EC-130H," and its upgrades would allow it to conduct jamming and electronic attacks from longer ranges.

Electronic warfare is also one of the most delicate operations that militaries conduct, requiring precision and coordination to ensure enemy forces are affected and friendly forces are not. For example, Russian jamming of Ukrainian air-defense radars early in the war also ended up jamming the Russian Army's radio communications.

Naturally, the Air Force wants to extensively test the E-37B before deploying it. Kelly said the service was confident in the airplane but needed to make sure the mission systems aboard it would function as and when needed.

An aircraft with spinning propellors.
A US Air Force EC-130H at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in August 2021.US Air Force/Senior Airman Alex Miller

"It's all about the mission systems, and when we dial up the jamming power or ask for a specific waveform, that waveform needs to come out at exactly the amount of ramp and power and frequency we asked for," Kelly said. "If you ask for a certain amount of jamming, that's what you get. When you turn it off, it turns off. We aren't straining the environmental system of the airplane, so on and so forth."

The EC-37B has been in the works for some time, but the Air Force is also looking to unmanned aircraft to add mass and capability to its fleet. The Collaborative Combat Aircraft program aims to develop robot wingmen for current US warplanes and for the Air Force's Next-Generation Air Dominance project, which aims to produce a sixth-generation fighter.

Asked about priority missions for the CCAs at a conference earlier this year, Kelly pointed to jamming alongside sensing, signals intelligence, and similar missions. Kelly said the "hurdle" would be determining the size, weight, and power available to support those payloads, adding: "I think we'll iterate from there."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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