Cognitive Electronic Warfare Could Revolutionize How America Wages War With Radio Waves

The U.S. military, like many others around the world, is investing significant time and resources into expanding its electronic warfare capabilities across the board, for offensive and defensive purposes, in the air, at sea, on land, and even in space. Now, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence mean that electronic warfare systems, no matter what their specific function, may all benefit from a new underlying concept known as advanced “Cognitive Electronic Warfare,” or Cognitive EW. The main goal is to be able to increasingly automate and otherwise speed up critical processes, from analyzing electronic intelligence to developing new electronic warfare measures and countermeasures, potentially in real-time and across large swathes of networked platforms.

Over the Horizon, an online journal that officers and academics from the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College established, published an interesting piece on the principles behind Cognitive EW and the potential benefits of its application on July 3, 2020. The article, which Air Force Major John Casey wrote, is worth reading in full

In addition to presently being a student at the Army Command and General Staff College, Casey has multiple deployments under his belt as an Electronic Warfare Officer on the RC-135U Combat Sent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, giving him a direct operational insight into many electronic warfare issues. 

The RC-135U, of which the Air Force has just two, is specifically configured to gather electronic and signals intelligence, with a particular focus on collecting data regarding adversaries’ radars. These aircraft scoop up information about electronic signatures to help commanders build so-called “electronic orders of battle” detailing the disposition of an opponent’s air defenses. This includes detecting and classifying threat emitters, and pinpointing their locations, among other electronic intelligence-gathering capabilities. 

A briefing slide explaining the functions of the RC-135U’s crew members, as just one example of the kinds of electronic and signals intelligence that the US military collects on a regular basis. ASE stands for Airborne Systems Engineer., USAF

“In the last two decades, the U.S. advantage in the EMS [electromagnetic spectrum] domain faltered due to years of austere budgets resulting in a stagnation of EW systems development. The 17 years of operating in a highly permissive environment inculcated a lack of EMS mindfulness in weapon system development and operational planning,” Casey notes in his piece. “Adversaries, studying how the US fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, developed doctrine and weapons to counter the asymmetric advantages in the EMS domain. The US stands now at an EW disadvantage.”

The various branches of the U.S. military are mindful of this reality and have all made important strides forward in developing and fielding new electronic warfare systems to conduct electronic attacks, such as jamming enemy radars, communications networks, or incoming threats, as well as those able to defend against those kinds of attacks. Some services, the U.S. Navy in particular, have certainly been more active in this field than others.

However, a number of core underlying processes remain unchanged in fundamental ways from how they were carried out at the dawn of modern electronic warfare during the Second World War. While the technology and tactics involved have improved since 1945, various U.S. military assets, such as Casey’s RC-135U, are still charged with probing the capabilities of adversaries and potential adversaries, and grabbing information about signal emitters of all sorts, from radars to radios to data-sharing networks and more. While the crews of the Combat Sents, and other platforms charged with these intelligence-gathering missions, can conduct some initial analysis of this information, or use it for an immediate tactical benefit, such as geolocating enemy forces on the battlefield below, it then typically falls to personnel in specialized facilities to fully exploit that data. 

A look inside an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, which also has extensive electronic and signals intelligence capabilities., USAF

Those analysts and engineers will need to spend time picking apart the intelligence to determine the capabilities of hostile systems and figure out what it might take to counter them. The development of jamming systems on aircraft and ships, for instance, requires knowing things like what radars bands an opponent is using or what signals an incoming missile or some other threat is homing in on. Similarly, this data is necessary to develop new friendly weapon systems that can brush off incoming electronic attacks.

The obvious issue is that all of this takes time. In an actual conflict, an opponent may deploy never before seen electronic warfare systems and tactics or use certain types against U.S. forces that might not necessarily have the right weapons or other equipment on hand to mitigate their effects immediately. Those units would remain vulnerable for however long it takes to develop new electronic warfare systems, modify existing ones, or otherwise source the appropriate gear, which might be in short supply, necessary to respond to those emergent challenges.

A prime historical example of this is the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile. First employed during the Vietnam War, the seeker head was pre-programmed to home in on a specific radar band or set of radar bands. If a plane was carrying a missile set to zero in on one type of radar, but stumbled upon another, that was just too bad. If the North Vietnamese air defenders were capable of modulating their radars frequencies outside the bandwidth of the seeker, they might be able to escape destruction. 

In the end, the Navy developed 10 subvariants of the AGM-45A and AGM-45B missiles, each tuned to different bands and with other counter-countermeasures. Planes would fly missions with a mixture of types to give them the best chance of having the one they needed. Needless to say, this was a suboptimal arrangement and subsequent anti-radiation missiles featured broadband seekers and were, as a result, significantly more flexible.

An AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile., USAF

This is where Cognitive EW comes in. At its most basic, this concept revolves around the idea of being able to detect and categorize the signals that an opponent is using, for whatever purpose, and then use machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to help further automate the process of developing countermeasures and counter-countermeasures. A computer system, especially one with an ever-growing library of electronic signature data collected from a wide array of sources, could parse through that information much faster than a human, or even a team of humans depending on the volume of available intelligence, rapidly identifying items of interest for further analysis and exploitation. It may even be able to start doing some of that follow-on work by itself after isolating the important data.

“In the near term, proven EW platforms within the land, maritime, air, and space domains would host cognitive EW capabilities as part of their detection and identification suite. Onboard these platforms organically collected and off-board feeds would provide spectrum domain awareness and emitter characterization to these platforms hosting cognitive EW toolkits,” he explains in his article. “Forward and remote operators aided by cognitive EW toolkits would scrutinize the EMS feeds off the sensors to rapidly characterize the spectrum and when necessary, immediately start the development [of] countermeasures.”

The basic principles behind Cognitive EW aren’t new, something Major Casey notes himself, but advances in computing, as well as the near-constant miniaturization of that technology, have made it increasingly more practical for use outside of a laboratory environment. As time goes on, the hope is that it will be possible to integrate this technology within electronic warfare systems themselves, allowing them to modulate how they operate automatically and do so extremely fast, even in real-time in the middle of an operation, based on information they’re collecting, as well as receiving from offboard sources via any number of platforms networked together. Casey describes this as the “holy grail” of this capability.

“As cognitive EW technology matures, these toolkits would be embedded in forward strike platforms to better sense, identify, attribute, and share the current state of EMS environment between all forces and across all domains,” he continues. “These actions would allow blue forces to rapidly maneuver within the spectrum and denying [sic] the adversary the use of the spectrum that they are not able to recover.”

A briefing slide giving a very rudimentary overview of the electromagnetic “domain” as it applies to US Marine Corps operations. This gives a general sense of the areas where Cognitive EW might get applied for both offensive and defensive purposes by the US military broadly., Williams Foundation

If one or more branches of the U.S. military isn’t already employing advanced Cognitive EW on some level, there is clear evidence of work that will create a valuable infrastructure to support the concept in the near term. The Navy’s secretive Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors program, or NEMESIS, an effort aimed at developing an entire networked electronic warfare “ecosystem,” sounds particularly well suited for collecting and processing signature information where Cognitive EW systems can start picking them apart and rapidly deploying unified electronic warfare tactics tailored to the situation. This would occur across multi-domains of warfare – air, sea, undersea, and even land -across a diverse array of platforms that are tightly networked together. In effect, creating seamless electronic warfare effects across the battlespace, unlike anything that has come before it. In fact, it is hard to imagine NEMESIS working without some level of advanced Cognitive EW at the center of the architecture.

We at The War Zone noted how critical networked EW concepts will be in our exclusive feature on the game-changing NEMESIS program, which you can find here, writing:

“As more nations develop and refine their advanced integrated sensor networks, next-generation EW ‘systems of systems’ such as NEMESIS will become more vital to protecting the U.S. and allied assets and for giving them a leg up by being able to directly manipulate what the enemy believes is occurring on the battlespace based on their own sensors’ data. As such, NEMESIS can help level the playing field against increasingly capable sensor networks, whether by blinding certain parts of those networks while spoofing others or by having the enemy fire its treasured weaponry at ghosts in the sea and in the air. Even a formation of what appears to be an incoming bomber force on radar and a puzzling group of bright signatures on infrared sensors could draw the enemy’s attention away from critical parts on a real offensive.

Yes, much of this sounds almost like magic, and it is probably the closest thing the military has to it…”

It seems very plausible, if not probable, that some form of advanced Cognitive EW is the engine behind making a concept like NEMESIS a reality. 


Major Casey also notes that Cognitive EW capabilities could be placed in traditional intelligence processing centers to automate and otherwise help speed up the analysis of new electronic signatures, as well as the creation of new electronic warfare systems or the improvement of existing ones. The increasing use of open-architecture and modular systems that allow for the rapid integration of additional and upgraded capabilities for various pieces of equipment, as well as the introduction of advanced high-bandwidth, long-range communications and data-sharing networks, will make it easier and easier to get those updates to assets in the field on short notice.

“Like flakes of gold hidden in a riverbed, the computer would sift the endless flow of signals looking for the signatures of the unknown. These elusive signals are normally flagged by hand with analyst spelunking through the spectrum looking for the traces of the exotic,” Casey says, highlighting how there will still be a need for actual human specialists to support this work. “Eventually, as connectivity between platforms becomes more ubiquitous, detection and countermeasure profiles would be pushed [to operational elements] within minutes and seconds.”

The immense potential benefits of Cognitive EW are clear. The entire cycle of developing and fielding countermeasures and counter-countermeasures to hostile electronic warfare capabilities could be dramatically sped up in favor of American forces. It would also help mitigate the sudden appearance of new threats at critical junctures and make it harder for opponents to plan their own warfighting activities in the electromagnetic spectrum.

“The EMS knows no limits and the photons do not care about threat envelopes, fire support coordination lines, national interests, or boundaries,” Casey writes in closing his own piece. “Cognitive EW is the first step to create rapid, focused, and unexpected actions within the EMS domain to generate situations in which the enemy cannot react fast enough to overcome the advance.”

All told, Cognitive EW holds the exciting promise of being a game-changer for the U.S. military that would revolutionize how American forces operating in the air, at sea, on land, or anywhere else, could exploit the electromagnetic spectrum right in the thick of combat.

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