CRF Blog

Inside the New Arms Race to Control Bandwidth on the Battlefield

by Bill Hayes

In Inside the New Arms Race to Control Bandwidth on the Battlefield, Wired magazine reports on the importance of controlling the electromagnetic spectrum to the U.S. military.

It is well known that America’s military dominates both the air and the sea. What’s less celebrated is that the US has also dominated the spectrum, a feat that is just as critical to the success of operations. Communications, navigation, battlefield logistics, precision munitions — all of these depend on complete and unfettered access to the spectrum, territory that must be vigilantly defended from enemy combatants. Having command of electromagnetic waves allows US forces to operate drones from a hemisphere away, guide cruise missiles inland from the sea, and alert patrols to danger on the road ahead. Just as important, blocking enemies from using the spectrum is critical to hindering their ability to cause mayhem, from detonating roadside bombs to organizing ambushes. As tablet computers and semiautonomous robots proliferate on battlefields in the years to come, spectrum dominance will only become more critical. Without clear and reliable access to the electromagnetic realm, many of America’s most effective weapons simply won’t work.

Yet despite the importance of this crucial resource, America’s grip on the spectrum has never been more tenuous. Insurgencies and rogue nations cannot hope to match our multibillion-dollar expenditures on aircraft carriers and stealth bombers, but they are increasingly able to afford the devices necessary to wage spectrum warfare, which are becoming cheaper and more powerful at the same exponential pace as all electronics. “Now anybody can go to a store and buy equipment for $10,000 that can mimic our capability,” says Robert Elder, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who today is a research professor at George Mason University. Communications jammers are abundant on global markets or can be assembled from scratch using power amplifiers and other off-the-shelf components. And GPS spoofers, with the potential to disrupt everything from navigation to drones, are simple to construct for anyone with a modicum of engineering expertise.

Stateless actors aren’t the only — or even most troubling — challenge to America’s spectrum dominance. The greater an opponent’s size and wealth, the more electromagnetic trouble it can cause. A nation like China, for example, has the capability to stage elaborate electronic assaults that could result in nightmare scenarios on the battlefield: radios that abruptly fall silent in the thick of combat, drones that plummet from the sky, smart bombs that can’t find their targets. The US may very well never engage in a head-to-head shooting war in the Far East, but the ability to effectively control the spectrum is already becoming a new type of arms race, one that is just as volatile as the ICBM race during the Cold War — and one that can have just as big an impact on global diplomacy.

The American military is scrambling to develop new tools and techniques that will help it preserve its electromagnetic edge. But that edge continues to shrink by the day, and very soon our inability to completely control the spectrum might result in a different kind of war. [more]