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Invisible Security: The Electromagnetic Spectrum

25 Oct 2016
By Thom Dixon
AC David Grieger. RAAF website. Creative Commons

Modern theatres of conflict are dependent on communications technology and the electromagnetic spectrum is a vital part of this. However, history shows dominance of this vital realm is not achieved on the battlefield but through intelligence and technology developed long before.

Land, air, sea and space, all these domains are visible in one form or another. That is, they exist on the electromagnetic spectrum in such a way that we can see them. But a great deal of the spectrum is not visible, and that is where most of the world’s wireless communications take place. The spectrum is a highly contested theatre in warfare and the outcome of spectrum warfare can easily determine the outcome in the four other domains.

If there was a Most Valued Player award for Russian agents run by the CIA during the Cold War then Adolf Tolkachev would be on the short list. Tolkachev met with the CIA 21 times in Moscow in the early 1980s. He was a radar engineer working in Moscow and his story is told in David Hoffman’s book The Billion Dollar Spy. Tolkachev is called the billion dollar spy because a conservative estimate by the US Air Force suggests that his leaks saved more than US$2 billion in research and development costs. Leaking radar blueprints will do that. But it wasn’t just blueprints that Tolkachev was leaking. He was leaking a decade’s research and development (R&D) plans, essentially handing over the map for Soviet strategic resource allocation in radar research.

Spectrum warfare – Yugoslavia and Iraq

This breach of Soviet spectrum security is one of the reasons why the US obtained total air superiority over Yugoslavia during the 1999 bombing campaign. In this campaign the US exerted spectrum dominance through acute exploitation of USSR radar weaknesses. This was made possible through a 20-year R&D strategy that designed technology specifically to make use of Tolkachev’s intelligence.

However, US dominance of the spectrum didn’t last. A fast-forward to Iraq finds the US suffering casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in part due to ineffective jamming of civilian wireless communication. A 2014 interview with Jesse Potter provides a window into just how unprepared the army was for the electromagnetic battlefield of Iraq.

The army’s quick fix were high-powered and relatively indiscriminate jammers that knocked out all communications, not just civilian. This created the conundrum of patrol units having to choose between safety from IEDs and being able to wirelessly communicate with any other unit. As Potter recounts, the problem wasn’t solved until a spectrum map of Iraq’s entire electromagnetic activity was created and the jammers were tailored to target the relevant bands of the spectrum. Once again it was intelligence work in combination with R&D that won the electromagnetic spectrum.

Intelligence and Development

Spectrum security cannot exist without intelligence. As the spectrum is invisible it is incredibly difficult for anyone to be confident they are in full control at any one time. Yet that’s precisely what the military needs, total confidence in their supporting systems and the bandwidths of the spectrum that enable them. This confidence must come from intelligence work and a complementary R&D strategy.

Today almost everyone carries aerials around with them, whether they know it or not. Indeed, almost everyone has a form of wireless communication in their pocket. The spectrum is now a very crowded place and while militaries may be reasonably fortified against jamming, GPS technologies aren’t always as robust. Anything that can confuse a guided weapon system or a drone is an obvious issue.

Modern theatres like the South China Sea rely entirely upon wireless communication to function effectively. The risks inherent in losing spectrum security begin to balloon out when the number of individual assets—sensors, drones and people—that need to communicate over the horizon increases. Losing the ability to be confident in the spectrum begins to be an extremely damaging risk. Decentralised interoperable networks of assets can’t see each other if the communication goes down or if it is no longer regarded as secure.

The lesson of Tolkachev and is that spectrum dominance is not won on a battlefield, it’s won 10 years before the battle takes place. Not only is an entire electromagnetic map of the opposing force and civilian infrastructure a necessity, the means to exploit this knowledge needs to exist. This can only happen through intelligence windfalls and a targeted R&D spend—and this has to happen over decades. This hinges on a long-range strategic vision coupled with the resources to back it up.

The legacy of Tolkachev should not just be a decade of air supremacy for the US. Rather, it should be a blueprint for how to build systemic confidence in spectrum security and control. Spectrum warfare is nothing new, but the growing reliance on drones and sensors means that the invisible battlefield may be the most important theatre of warfare in the 21st century.

Thom Dixon is a councillor with AIIA NSW and a young leader with the Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Young Leaders Program.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.