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Electronic Warfare: How the Army is bringing the invisible fight to the frontline

Electronic warfare, or EW, might sound like something from a science fiction film, but ever since the invention of the field telephone, armies have sought to intercept, disrupt and deny electronic signals.

As the world becomes ever-more digital, EW is helping the Army to prepare for the future battlespace and the invisible fight to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum.

The spectrum surrounds us and we are ever more dependent on it, from radio waves through visible light to gamma rays.

The Army communicates in the field through encrypted radios and satellites, to safely transmit voice messages and remove any reliance on day-to-day communication channels such as phone networks, which are unavailable and insecure. 

The Army will need to provide the Future Soldier with better quality voice communications, often accompanied by detailed imagery and automated data exchanges.  Combined, these will gain us the ‘information advantage.’

There is a growing importance in intercepting and disrupting the enemy’s electromagnetic footprint (networks, systems and platforms), as well as protecting our own information assets.

EW allows us to jam radio frequencies, listen in to enemy communications, and learn where the enemy is using their equipment.  

It could also mean using countermeasures to stop or, by choice, to disrupt the enemy from doing the same to us.

As reliance on information grows, encryption becomes more complex, as does the equipment needed to communicate.

EW operatives work alongside cyber experts, who can give more complex effects, such as interfering with an enemy system from within.

Gaining the information advantage is more important than ever, and is one of the priorities set out in Future Soldier, the Army’s transformation plan.

Dominating the electromagnetic space enables our troops and equipment to move around and to freely operate more safely.

Our invisible (or virtual) actions through the spectrum and cyberspace are now as important as physical operations at sea, on land, in the air and in space.

The Future Soldier will be more integrated – with other Services and with allies and partners - sharing information to keep ahead of the enemy.

Cyber, electronic and physical elements will all work together to give real-time information to help give us the edge.

The systems that our troops use have also become more integrated. Armoured vehicles will have sensors which can feed data to the commander on the ground, to the strategic headquarters, to other vehicles, or to Government departments; giving a rich, real-time picture of events, and allowing more informed decision making.

As we embrace this complexity and introduce robotics and automated systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence - linking sensors and weapons with decision makers - the reliance on open access to the electromagnetic spectrum will be crucial.

Electronic surveillance will continue to be the cornerstone of identifying enemy forces, equipment and movement, to help UK troops plan operations and share intelligence.

At the same time, air and sea assets will also be collecting and sharing information, enhancing co-operation and enriching our understanding to inform better decisions.

EW and cyber effects will prevent the enemy from communicating effectively, confuse their targeting capabilities, and prevent the use of electronically-triggered devices.

This benefit of EW countermeasures has already been demonstrated over many years by protecting UK soldiers from Improvised Explosive Devices.

Under Future Soldier, more specialist equipment is being developed quickly, through partnership with Strategic Command, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and with industry and security partners across Government. Specialist kit needs highly skilled operators.

The Army’s EW centre of excellence, 14 Signal Regiment, supports all types of and scales operations and is experimenting with novel technologies.

But every soldier will need to understand the invisible threats we may face and how we can minimise any disruption, so training everyone about the spectrum and cyberspace is as important as specific training for specialist troops.  

As the uses of EW are also becoming more widely understood across the Army and Defence, its application becoming a more regular part of operational work.

Kristina Evans, Head of Cyber and Security at Army HQ, said: “When we talk about EW, we talk about deceiving, denying, disrupting and degrading enemy assets. It’s an all-encompassing military activity where we can make a real impact from a distance – keeping our troops safer, or preventing conflict.

"Sharing information with the other Services, or with our allies, is as important as gathering it in the first place. We do that by being a more connected, more digitally enabled Army.

"This is the realisation of Multi-Domain Integration; where accurate data is gathered from around the world – and space – and moved around quickly to the right people, to enable better decisions.”

Under the Future Soldier transformation plan, more specialist skills, like those needed for Electronic Warfare, will be required.