Electronic warfare — strategic, targeted attacks typified by cyber aggression and hacking of adversaries’ technology systems — was first seen on the global battlefield at a large scale with Russia’s instigating conflicts in Ukraine circa 2014. Destruction from EW was widespread at the time, with interceptions to communications networks causing fatalities and scrambling military organization and planning. In one instance, a Ukrainian commander returned a call to his mother, which was tracked through geolocation. The commander was slain by Russian artillery.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War saw intensified and more cunning EW strategies employed — reportedly, a U.S. special operations commander attested that Syria was the world’s most aggressive electronic warfare environment to date. U.S. Air Force pilots’ communications were routinely jammed during their involvement.
A new branch of the Chinese army, dubbed the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, has been established to handle EW, cyber and space operations, signaling the prevalence of these kinds of tactics. However, according to Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais, deputy commanding general and chief of staff of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the most prominent display of EW right now is in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Since February 2022, this ongoing war has shown “examples of how EW and cyber converge to [beget] sophisticated new kinds of fights—really a fight for speed and relevancy, which targets everything from tactical forces in the field to their command and control networks, all the way to national-level targets.” Gervais shared these insights at the ExecutiveBiz Electronic Warfare Forum on Thursday.
If you missed Lt. Gen. Gervais’ remarks, you can still view the full event now, which also featured a panel discussion with top EW thought leaders from the public and private sectors. Register for the forum and watch at your leisure here.
During her keynote speech, Gervais asserted that EW attacks are predicated on exploiting vulnerabilities in the United States’ sensing capabilities and its command and control architecture. This comes through incursions of soft power, which the Lt. Gen says can “provide an information advantage: a relative advantage, enabling a more complete operational picture.” She also said they can produce decision dominance and create an upper hand for an adversary that allows a foreign military to act faster. Gervais wondered whether the recent Federal Aviation Administration system outages could be a potential example of a soft power attack.
“To prevent our ability to converge our own multi-domain capabilities stands as a critical threat. We must understand the impacts of our adversary’s soft power and how to defend ourselves from that threat,” Gervais resolved.
Soft power aggression such as EW can additionally reap fear and panic in a government or populace, thereby bestowing power on the attacking nation, Gervais said. The lieutenant general compared the panic-inducing effects of EW to the way the threat of weapons of mass destruction were utilized by Iraq and Afghanistan during America’s respective wars. She attests that China and Russia want to use EW and other soft power tactics to “win without fighting,” which would “separate the United States internally from its allies and partners and separate the elements of the joint force.”
According to Gervais, modernization in EW strategies does constitute innovation, but with that innovation comes a great deal of risk. Even though a unified communications network enables the U.S. military to thrive in “volatile, congested and contested environments,” we must master and fully comprehend our cyber capabilities as well as that of our adversaries, Gervais warned.
“In the end, he or she who can sense the quickest, who can process and analyze information and data using artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed decision-making, and then distribute that the quickest to the multiple shooters…will win,” Gervais remarked.
True to her post at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, Gervais said this test of fitness for dominance in the multi-domain environment will be measured by who is best trained in network, cyber and space tools. She also cited leader development as being crucial, as well as adopting an anticipatory rather than reactive approach to incoming cyber attacks.
To hear Gervais’ full speech, you can register and watch the Electronic Warfare Forum here.