Electrum for the Spectrum

The complexity of this diagram underscores the ubiquity of the electromagnetic spectrum on the battlefield. Frustrating an adversary’s use of the spectrum while safeguarding one’s own is at the core of electromagnetic manoeuvre.

The Pentagon publishes its first strategy stating how the country’s armed forces will jointly manoeuvre for superiority in the electromagnetic spectrum.

“The Nation has entered an age of warfighting wherein the US dominance in air, land, sea, space, cyberspace and the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) is challenged by peer and near-peer adversaries,” warned the now-defrocked US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper. His were the opening words of the the Department of Defence’s (DOD) Electromagnetic Superiority Strategy published in October.

The strategy addresses how the DOD “will develop superior EMS capabilities” to ensure US forces gain and maintain EMS superiority. Key to this is aligning the DOD’s spectrum outlook with the US’ 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defence Strategy, along with national economic and technology policies.

The strategy is a welcome, holistic approach concerning how America’s armed forces will fight in the EMS. At the heart of this fight is electromagnetic manoeuvre. Electromagnetic manoeuvre, borrowing from the airpower domain, will help US forces achieve electromagnetic superiority leading to electromagnetic supremacy.

Since the start of the Second World War, air superiority has been essential for achieving success in conventional operations. The reality now is that belligerents are unlikely to achieve victory unless they prevail in the spectrum. The strategy examines the electromagnetic threat environment, the technologies vital for electromagnetic superiority, networking, mind set and implementation.


The strategy stresses that freedom of action in the spectrum is a sine qua non for US military success not only in the electronic domain but also the kinetic. It acknowledges that the DOD’s appetite for bandwidth is growing at a time when civilian appetites are similarly vociferous. The advent of fifth-generation wireless communications will see chunks of spectrum in frequencies of 400 megahertz/MHz to 3.4 gigahertz/GHz, 2.4GHz to 4.2GHz and 24GHz and beyond shared with commercial telecommunications providers.

The strategy argues that traditional ‘fixed’ models of spectrum allocation, where blocks of frequencies are made available for exclusive use by civilian or military operators may now be irrelevant: “A new model is needed to address the growing demand for access to an increasingly congested and constrained EMS,” the document states. It recommends spectrum sharing as a way forward: Frequencies could be used in specific areas at specific times through the agreement of the parties wishing to use that spectrum. While this might work at the domestic level, the strategy concedes that more work may have to be done to foster such an approach internationally.


The document stresses that the DOD must invest in technologies that can help achieve EM superiority while denying that superiority to adversaries. These technologies must have a small electromagnetic footprint facilitated through frequency agility and diversity to reduce the chance of detection. They should also be safeguarded against cyberattack. The strategy recommends using commercial and civilian technologies where appropriate to this end.

Offensive efforts are a major focus for the strategy. It states that achieving overmatch through advanced electronic attack is vital. This is essential to ensuring that adversaries remain perpetually off balance in the electromagnetic environment: “(D)isruptive capabilities will impose cost and create chaos for our adversaries, in ways they cannot predict, by denying or deceiving their EMS capabilities at the time and place of our choosing.”

Acknowledging the primacy of the electronic warfare triad namely electronic support, electronic attack and electronic protection, the strategy stresses that the DOD must invest in systems and software to “detect, identify, locate and replicate complex emitters/signals of interest rapidly to build situational awareness and enable targeting for both kinetic and non-kinetic fires.” While helping Electronic Warfare (EW) practitioners to develop a red force electronic order-of-battle these electronic support systems will help “unravel the chaos of a congested and contested electromagnetic environment.”


Equally important is ensuring that data germane to electromagnetic manoeuvre can be shared using common, secure protocols throughout the DOD. Data is arguably worthless unless it can be shared quickly and easily. This imperative extends to US allies: “The DoD must ensure EMS enterprise development efforts are interoperable and aligned with our allies and partners and should remove barriers limiting collaboration. This requires interoperable data sources and architectures.”


The strategy will be implemented via a roadmap drafted by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They also serve as the senior designated official in the DOD’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations cross-functional team. This is tasked with reforming how the DOD and the US armed forces prepare for and conduct spectrum operations.

Spectrum Mindset

While much of the strategy focuses on technology, people remain at the core. Circuity, transmissions and code remains little more than a jumbled mass of silicon, hertz, zeroes and ones without the brains to harness these for electromagnetic manoeuvre. The strategy stresses that “all personnel” must maintain a manoeuvre mindset. This is a welcome step forward from the status quo ante when electronic warfare had been the preserve of a select cadre. Those EW practitioners will remain across the armed forces but personnel outside this cadre will have a working understanding of the spectrum and how to achieve tactical, operational and/or strategic success within it.

The publication of the strategy is a welcome step. The US Navy, US Army, US Air Force and US Marine Corps already have their own EW doctrines. This strategy is a useful way of tying these together in a complementary fashion. Importantly, it also illustrates that the DOD is thinking about the spectrum holistically and realises that owning the spectrum is vital for success on the battlefield.

by Dr. Thomas Withington