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New gear puts electronic warfare on the offensive

Oct. 30, 2013 - 06:52PM   |  
CREW
For squads on foot, the Thor III is like a Duke V3 split into three 26-pound man-packable units that together create a protective bubble. (Colin Kelly/Staff)
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EDGEWOOD, MD. — Army electronic warfare capabilities in their early days in Iraq got a reputation as a sledgehammer that jammed both roadside bomb detonators and friendly communications indiscriminately, but today, Army officials say those capabilities have been refined to bemore like a scalpel or a Swiss Army knife.

The program office for electronic warfare is fielding an array of precision jammers, including some that target the triggers for radio-controlled improvised explosive devices and act as sensors to pinpoint the trigger man’slocation. These new devices also extend to squads on foot and forward operating bases the protective bubble for wheeled vehicles.

“This is a significant shift from defense — protect your convoy, let’s just get through the day — to go on the offensive for enemy command and control,” said Mike Ryan, electronic warfare program manager.

The next version of the CREW Duke for vehicles merges electronic warfare and cyberwarfare by conducting “protocol-based attacks,” said Ryan, “where you actually get into the system and displace ones and zeroes to break that communication chain between the trigger and the [radio-controlled] IED receiving those ones and zeroes.” This is part of a technology insertion over the next few years.

Although Army EW program officials were guarded in what they could say publicly, a more sophisticated protocol-based attack theoretically could insert malicious software code into an adversary’s computer network over the air to disrupt the network or to steal information from it. The Army is exploring technology that can be deployed on aircraft and ground vehicles to wage this kind of cyberwarfare, according to a recent report from Defense News, a sister publication of Army Times.

According to a carefully worded statement from the EW program office, it conducted a demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in February in which a convoy equipped with Duke jammers demonstrated a blend of cyber and electronic warfare in a single tactical scenario. The convoy demonstrated its ability to protect itself, pinpoint the location of signals and “attack and exploit insurgent communication systems.”

“This demonstration utilizing existing tactical sensors to gain and maintain an advantage over adversaries and enemies in both cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, while simultaneously denying and degrading adversary and enemy use of the same, is a promising first step toward showing the full potential of CEMA employment and its contribution to unified land operations,” the statement reads.

CEMA is a relatively new Army concept that addresses the integration and synchronization of cyberspace operations, electronic warfare and electromagnetic spectrum management operations.

Toolbox of EW systems

The Army has fielded a family of EW systems as quick-reaction capabilities in recent months. They are not integrated, but the strategy is to consolidate or link them in the next generation of EW gear, the Multifunctional Electronic Warfare System, envisioned for 2020.

“As we come out of the war, with these existing systems, we will have a bridging strategy,” Ryan said. “We will maintain them, improve them, be ready to support the global response force, and at the same time invest in [research and development] to replace these individual boxes.”

The latest mix of hardware tailored to the ground force includes the Duke V3 for vehicles and post entry points, the man-packable Thor and Baldr for squads, and the FOB-bound Gator device, which locates enemy command-and-control signals.

In contrast with the earliest version of Duke, when it only jammed low-powered roadside bomb triggers such as toy cars and key fobs, the later versions have been adapted to jam cellular signals and a broader range of commercial and military threats.

Part of the system is always on, jamming those low-powered threats, but it can also sense other potential threats and react to jam them. If an adversary is triggering multiple bombs on multiple frequencies, Duke — which is, in a sense, a software-defined radio — can frequency hop and distribute power to jam along multiple frequencies.

“We’re having constant comms with the theater, and they’re very satisfied, it’s very effective and it’s significantly reduced the casualty rate,” said Lt. Col. Kent Snyder, the product manager for CREW. “[Soldiers are] happy, but they’re looking for expanded capabilities.”

With 32,000 Duke devices fielded, and each of them a sensor with an event log, the Army is interested in consolidating the data on failed bomb attacks for its intelligence databases. Duke can be used to chart the origin of a so-called “signal of interest” emanating from a trigger man as it jams, Ryan said.

Rudimentary pressure-plate and command-wire detonated IEDs are more common in Afghanistan than radio-controlled IEDs were in Iraq, but EW program officials say that points to the success of their technologies, not their obsolescence.

“We have a saying that we’ve put them back on command wire and other methods that expose them to detection through other assets,” Ryan said. “The [radio-controlled] incidents are much lower, and we know if we take this away, it’ll come right back because they’re constantly probing and testing.”

The Roadmaster, a vehicle-mounted direction finding system, can find lines of bearing on known trigger signals. Used in concert with the Duke V3, the system detects enemy signals, overlays them on a map and records them. The soldier can pursue the trigger man or continue to collect intelligence.

For squads on foot, the Thor III is like a Duke V3 split into three 26-pound man-packable units that together create a protective bubble. Several thousand have been fielded over the past few years, program officials said.

Individual soldiers who plan to wander outside of the Thor’s protective bubble can wear the smaller Baldr that protects over an individual footprint. Baldr, which weighs 12 pounds with its battery, has recently been fielded.

The Gator, a Ground Auto Targeting Observation/Reactive jammer, is a fixed-site technology for a forward operating base, meant to surgically identify, locate and jam enemy communications. The Army has fielded eight systems, which consist of a containerized shelter, a transceiver and a 107-foot mast antenna.

One application for Gator is to selectively black out enemy communications to herd enemy fighters out of a protected position to a vulnerable location in search of a better reception.

Gator can also transmit voice messages or music. Program officials noted Metallica and country music are not popular with insurgents.

The Army has fielded a Network EW Planning and Management Tool for use by electronic warfare operators, which helps war-game missions in advance, visualizing the spectrum in their battle space, predicting potential interference issues and designing work-arounds for potential conflicts.

The idea is to afford commanders an actionable picture of the electromagnetic spectrum. For example, a unit could detect and display the signal of an enemy spotter radioing coordinates for a mortar attack on its base. With the signal’s location, the commander would have the option to listen in, jam the signal or fire on its coordinates.

“You can populate a screen and say to the commander, ‘Sir, this is what we’re jamming,’ and he could see something visually,” Snyder said.

Such a tool would also allow the control and coordination of various electronic warfare assets on the battlefield. It will also be vital to the next generation of electronic warfare systems that promises the ability to cooperate with one another, focusing multiple jammers on a single area or jam various signals simultaneously.

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