WASHINGTON: Today, somewhere inside the Pentagon, senior Army officers will likely recommend development of new radio-jamming equipment for the post-Afghan War world. After a decade desperately playing defense against radio-detonated IEDs — and, before that, a decade of neglect in the 1990s — Army electronic warfare is taking the offensive again.

With their eyes on future adversaries more technologically sophisticated than the Taliban, commanders want new capabilities to shut down enemy electronic networks and protect their own. It’s a challenge intimately interwoven with but distinct from the higher-profile field of cyber warfare. Hackers infiltrate enemy networks to steal data and infiltrate viruses, while jammers simply shut them down — though that distinction gets blurred by new techniques such as “protocol attacks” that scramble digital radios.

The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is drafting a new field manual for “Cyber-Electromagnetic Activity,” CEMA, a concept that joins the two functions at the hip. A new Army school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma has so far trained almost 700 electronic warfare specialists — many of them combat veterans, ranging from young sergeants to, as of Jan. 1st, the field’s first full colonel — who will oversee not only traditional EW but also cyber operations, at least on the tactical level.

But these new personnel need new equipment to execute their new doctrine. If today’s formal Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) goes as expected, the Army will soon launch a new “multi-functional electronic warfare” (MFEW) program to develop an integrated arsenal of powerful, sophisticated sensors and jammers for use on drones, ground vehicles, and fixed locations.

It’s not that the Army doesn’t already have jammers. It has thousands, carried by many vehicles and even some foot patrols in Afghanistan and, until recently, Iraq. But these are limited systems, fielded in haste to save lives, often waiving the normal Army tests and standards, largely incompatible with one another, and all designed for the urgent but ultimately narrow mission of shutting down radio-detonated roadside bombs (aka radio-controlled improvised explosive devices, RCIEDs). Only one jammer has been institutionalized as a formal, fully funded “program of record,” the Duke CREW (counter-RCIED electronic warfare) system, and even Duke was never designed to protect more than the convoy of vehicles carrying it.

“It provides a defensive bubble around the soldiers to prevent a radio-controlled IED from being triggered,” said Col. Joe Dupont, the Army’s program manager for electronic warfare. The future multi-functional EW system should go much farther.

In the new concept, Dupont told Breaking Defense, once the sensors pick up an enemy transmission, “a commander has several options. He could have his SIGINT [signals intelligence] team exploit the signals, just sit there and listen to them. Or he could decide to attack it” — in various ways: “He can do a physical attack using kinetic weapons systems, meaning he can blow the crap out of it; or he can use an electronic attack using one of his EW systems; or in the future he may have the ability to do a cyber attack.”

Blowing something up is the most permanent solution, but missiles, bombs, and artillery shells might miss and, at worst, kill civilians. Cyber is the most subtle, but potentially the most challenging and time-consuming as US hackers figure out how to infiltrate and subvert the enemy network. Electronic warfare — jamming and spoofing — is non-lethal, for good and ill, and its effects only last as long as you keep transmitting, but because its ammunition is electromagnetic, it’s literally as fast as the speed of light.

Today, however, the Army has very little ability to jam enemy systems more sophisticated or distant than a roadside bomb. The service is fielding about two dozen ground-based jammers, called GATOR, and a handful of converted C-12s, called CAESAR. Otherwise it has to rely on the other services’ jamming aircraft, principally the Navy’s. But those are scarce, expensive, high-powered planes. For most Army missions, it’s like swatting flies with a shotgun.

“We could always bring in an EA-6B [Prowler] and blanket jam everything, but those things are in very high demand,” said Col. Jim Ekvall, an electronic warfare expert on the Army’s Pentagon staff, section G-39, speaking to Breaking Defense in his windowless Pentagon office.

“Prowlers are awesome”; their successor, the Navy’s new EA-1G Growler, is “wonderful”; and the Navy’s EC-130 Compass Call is “absolutely fantastic,” Ekvall enthused. “They’re the best in the world at doing what they’re designed to do — but they’re not available 24 hours a day to the ground maneuver commander…and they happen to be often fratricidal to our own communications systems and our own electronic warfare”: The Navy jammers in particular are designed to shut down enemy air-defense radars, which makes them so powerful they can scramble friendly systems on the ground.

That is, they do when the Army can get them. “There’s not enough joint assets to meet these needs of the ground components today,” said Col. Gary Hisle, who served as an Army liaison to the Combined Air Operations Center overseeing Afghanistan and Iraq. “They were only able to fill about 34 percent of the validated requirements — [that's] not the number that was actually submitted.”

“And that’s in a COIN [counterinsurgency] environment,” added Hisle, now TRADOC’s director of electronic warfare. Low-tech insurgents have little electronic equipment for the US to jam and still less ability to attack our networks. Future adversaries such as nation-states or even sophisticated non-state groups — the so-called hybrid threat — will have both more electronic warfare capacity to attack us with and more electronic assets of their own for us to attack.

Radio-detonated IEDs will hardly go away — they’re too cheap and effective — but they’ll will become just one part of an even deadlier and much more complex electromagnetic battlefield. “It’s a much broader perspective than just worrying about counter-IED,” said Ekvall. “Anybody can buy a two dollar walkie-talkie or a remote key fob, [and] I can use a key fob to detonate an IED,” he said, but the US has largely figured out how to shut down such threats. “When you fight a more sophisticated enemy who has more resources,” he said, “things become much more difficult.”

The Army’s new weapon in that fight will be something called the Integrated Electronic Warfare System, IEWS — assuming they can get it funded.

The first piece of IEWS is simply a spectrum management and planning tool for “electronic warfare integration”: “Think apps for EWOs,” said Michael Ryan, Col. Dupont’s deputy. The idea is software that can take in sensor inputs and tell those EWOs — electronic warfare officers — what’s out there: These are enemy transmissions, these are friendly ones, these are unknown; here are our own electronic attack systems, here are the likely effects if we use them to attack a given target — including “unintended consequences” such as inadvertently jamming a friendly system nearby. (“We’ve had a lot of problems in the past with electronic fratricide,” sighed Ryan).

The Army’s already issued formal Requests For Proposals from industry for the planning tool: “The RFP’s out now, we expect proposals back in February, we’ll run a selection in spring,” Ryan told Breaking Defense.

The next step is to develop the new electronic attack systems themselves. That’s the multi-function electronic warfare program, the jammers to go on drones, ground vehicles, and fixed installations. If today’s Analysis of Alternatives meeting approves, said Ryan, MFEW will go to Milestone A, technology development, later this year, with testing in 2019 and actual fielding in the 2020s.

All this assumes the military finds the money — no easy feat when the budget process is so dysfunctional that the Army and every other federal agency don’t know what they will have to spend in March, let alone in 2020.

“We all understand the budget of the future and that’s going to have an impact on every program the Army has,” said Ekvall. “Where this will ultimately wind up in the priority efforts of the Army, I can’t tell you.”

But a priority it has to be, he said: “We’ve got to get back into the ground electronic warfare fight.”

As a young artillery officer stationed in West Germany in the late eighties, Ekvall had the importance of electronic warfare drilled deep into him. “I was always concerned that the Soviets [in a war] would have the ability to disrupt my communications,” he said. Even in peacetime, he said, “we kind of assumed that the Soviets were listening to us, so we just talked in code.” But in the 1990s, with the Soviet threat gone and budgets shrinking, the Army essentially got out of the electronic warfare game — as did, to a lesser extent, the Air Force – and left it largely to Navy jamming aircraft. Then Iraq and Afghanistan shocked the Army back into the business again.

“There’s been this ebb and flow,” Ekvall told Breaking Defense. Today, he said, “we’re flowing.”