After Afghanistan, US forces are ill-prepared for electronic warfare elsewhere

December 9, 2021

After Afghanistan, US forces are ill-prepared for electronic warfare elsewhere

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The defense enterprise shift from counterterrorism to strategic competition is long overdue, but unique challenges in facing a peer or near-peer adversary remain largely unaddressed as the special operations enterprise must lead the Department of Defense in this new arena of competition. This new construct is one for which the command is not fully or properly supported to begin marshaling its considerable capabilities. 

Direct engagement with a peer force that is equipped and able to operate, and indeed, dominate in a multi-domain battlespace is what U.S. special operations command must prepare for — particularly with regards to its elite ground maneuver forces operating against a competent electronic warfare adversary.

Electronic warfare will be a true acid test for U.S. and coalition forces in any future potential confrontation with a peer adversary. In the global war on terror, coalition forces were inculcated in an environment of total battlespace supremacy — the ground, air, space, command and control, and logistics domains of the fight were never seriously challenged, and the resulting mission profile became an indoctrinated assumption in training and force application.

I ran in these circles for over 10 years, separating from the service to engage in policy work on these very issues. After recently conferring with former colleagues and senior-ranking members of tactical-level units within the enterprise, there is one vulnerability in a post-Afghanistan construct that stood out: The consistent narrative was that the tactical components in special operations command are not prepared to operate electronic warfare in a denied environment, which is a hostile environment under enemy control. 

Further, the rapid kill chain of drone warfare was only feasible in an environment that became familiar to operators after years of rotational deployments. In the next conflict, on new terrain that isn’t the familiar climes of old rotational outposts, navigational waypoints and target talk-on’s, that chain is less of a sure thing.

This is not to say that a Ranger platoon, or a Special Forces Operational-Detachment Alpha or Navy SEAL team cannot functionally execute in a denied environment. But any one of those teams’ ability to project force, seize key terrain, or destabilize an adversary’s center of gravity is severely curtailed by the inability to train at specialized sites that replicate Chinese or Russian electronic warfare capabilities. Train like you fight is a catchy metaphor, but mere window dressing when warfighters are not actually being enabled to apply the mantra.

When facing the potential of electronic warfare-savvy peer adversary forces, particularly in the denied environment of the Pacific, the ability to respond to the adversarial denial of the electronic spectrum is just as critical as performing a rapid reload on a weapon or seeking cover and concealment in a gunfight. However, if the status quo for domestic support infrastructure remains unchanged, special operations force elements will remain hamstrung in their ability to rehearse for the day when its command-and-control capabilities are degraded, if not outright denied. For operations security, there are only a small handful of sites in the continental United States that can fully simulate those denied environments — meaning they have the infrastructural capability for creating an electronic zone that spoofs, scrambles and generally upends even cryptological-secured communications networks and navigation devices. There are ways and means of overcoming such challenges, but unless subjected to the actual rigors of a truly denied operating space, the teams have not actually achieved readiness.

Those training sites are largely consolidated on the West Coast — Nellis Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range, to name a few — places known for test and validation of high-tech defense capabilities. The problem is, not only is special operations command headquartered in Tampa, Fla., but the preponderance of its tactical unit’s hail from Forts Bragg, Benning, Campbell, Camp Lejeune, and Little Creek Naval Installation — all East Coast units. Travel expenses add up quickly, making this reality analogous to D.C.-policy dynamics — where proximity to the White House is perceived influence in D.C., proximity to these exclusive and highly saturated training sites is tantamount to viable readiness in special operations. Thus, when the East Coast teams/commands have limited access to the facilities necessary to put the enterprise as a whole on equal footing with adversaries, then the short answer is that special operations is scarcely ready to transition from Afghanistan to strategic competition.

What role does Congress play in this? The service, acquisitions and appropriations committees need to take a hard look at the capabilities of peer inventories as it relates to creating hostile electronic warfare environments where our forces could be tasked to operate. The National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2022 remains bandied about in congressional chambers, and while initiatives call for capabilities modernization, new arenas of vulnerability and threat countering, those remain to be broad-stroke solutions, none of which directly cite or solve the counter-electronic warfare fight of the future. Using existing training locales with equipment that replicates adversary’s capacity as models, Congress needs to support additional sites which accommodate an enterprise whose requirements far exceed the battlefield dominance of Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Special operations’ charter is to prepare for conflict with a real enemy of comparable technological prowess. In order to do that, it needs to be equipped and enabled to overcome the battlespace denial the enterprise is all but certain to face when that red phone rings.

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.