Armies of Nerds Could Fight the Next Electronic War
Policy + Politics

Armies of Nerds Could Fight the Next Electronic War


“The development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations that means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said last month.

He could have been thinking how electronic warfare is emerging as a threat to U.S. military capabilities, particularly air defense systems and weaponry. Much of that is being driven by increased defense spending in countries like China.

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“This is an area that is evolving rapidly because of technology advances,” Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told a congressional panel last week, adding that China, Iran, North Korea and Russia are the main players being watched by the Department of Defense.

 “The United States has relied on a DOD that has had technological superiority for the better part of the post-World War II era,” he said. “There are factors that are converging such that the DOD maintaining technological superiority is now being challenged.”

While the use of electronics for offensive and defensive purposes has been around for decades, the most recent iteration for the Pentagon came in 2012, when it initiated the Advanced Components for Electronic Warfare program.

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A year later the Air Force got things moving by awarding research grants in that field worth $3 million. And now the Pentagon is asking Congress for about $500 million to spend on research and development in this area. As a point of comparison, the Defense Department is requesting $510 million in fiscal 2015 for cyber warfare research. The agency’s full request for research into science and technology is $11.5 billion, a 4 percent decrease from current funding levels.

As the U.S. military is undergoing cutbacks, China is boosting its defense budget at the fastest pace – 12.2 percent – in three years and comes on the heels of other double-digit annual increases. China has the world’s second largest defense budget, behind the U.S.

 “The concept behind electronic warfare is simple – the goal is to control your electronic signature or confuse an opponent’s system if you are defending and to simplify the overall situation – reject false targets and clutter – if you are attempting to use your own electronic systems – radar, communications and radio frequency,” Shaffer said.

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Put another way: electronic warfare is any military activity that aims to manipulate an electromagnetic spectrum energy to disrupt an adversary’s communications.

For countries lacking an air force that can go head-to-head with the U.S., electronic warfare is often a less costly alternative that can yield positive results. Disrupting communications can lead to ineffective or failed missions. Communications can also become more vulnerable over long distances, an issue at play as the U.S. makes its military “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia.

The Air Force is already slated to undergo a major communications upgrade of its own. Last week the service named 12 companies eligible to participate in a $5.8 billion computer upgrade aimed at improving network capabilities, security, defense and telephone communications.

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