Defence Industry

Electronic Warfare: Emerging Trends in Technology
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Issue Vol. 32.4 Oct-Dec 2017 | Date : 14 Jan , 2018

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The realm of Electronic Warfare (EW) has traditionally been kept in the classified domain, even within the security community. It was a domain handled by experts, in dedicated units equipped with specialist equipment. This veil of secrecy was necessitated because equipment of this nature was a perceived force multiplier based on proprietary technology. Since the development cycle of electronics was relatively smaller compared to other military technologies, a family of EW equipment could be rendered outdated and redundant with every new technology developed or acquired by the adversary. Hence the paranoia about secrecy was understandable. However, we now notice a trend where EW equipment and techniques are increasingly being used by general duty soldiers and law enforcement agencies especially in counter-terror operations. Niche technologies are now easily available in the open domain and can be procured off the shelf.

Historical Perspective

The use of the electromagnetic spectrum to gather intelligence information about the activities of the enemy (Signal Intelligence or SIGINT) coincided with the introduction of the Marconi Wireless Radio into the military domain in the beginning of the twentieth century. The transition from SIGINT to EW as a recognised form of warfare was seamless due to the similarities in equipment and procedures. There are several versions about the circumstances which led to the beginning of this kind of warfare. Interestingly, one such version talks about the first attempt at EW, which could not be completed since the permission was refused by the commander. This version can be traced to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

The Japanese auxiliary cruiser, SS Shinano Maru had located the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait and was communicating its location by wireless radio to the Imperial Japanese Fleet Headquarters located at Mesampo Bay, Korea. The captain of the Russian warship Ural requested permission to disrupt the Japanese communications link by attempting to transmit a stronger Radio Frequency (RF) signal hoping to distort the signal being received by the enemy. The Russian Admiral Rozhestvenshiy denied the Ural permission to electronically jam the enemy, which under the circumstances might have proven invaluable. Military historians are undecided whether Rozhestvenshiy wanted to prove to his fleet, his self-confidence in the face of the enemy or that he simply failed to grasp the value of electronic jamming as a means of preventing the enemy from communicating.1 Arguably this indecision could have led to Japan›s overwhelming victory at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, where a major portion of the Russian Baltic Fleet was destroyed.2

The period of the Cold War saw exponential growth in EW technologies, some of which is operational even now…

Electronic Warfare came into its own during the Second World War where it was used extensively by the Allies against the German air navigation systems used to guide the Luftwaffe in night raids. This was termed as ‘The Battle of the Beams’. There are several other examples of its use. However, the Tobruk (Africa) Campaign is well documented. While the British had excellent theatre-level intelligence; thanks to their exceptional code breaking capability, the tactical-level intelligence was lacking. In contrast, Rommel knew of the British superiority in numbers and the exact disposition of the British forces. British low level tactical communications, transmitted mainly in clear, was picked up accurately by the German signal intelligence company (Fernmelddeaufklarung) which was integral to Rommel’s forces. Since the locations, readiness and strength of forces were known, Rommel was sure that the British did not have uncommitted concentrated reserves, which proved to be the Achilles heel of the British forces leading to their defeat in spite of numeric superiority.3

The 1967 Six Day War saw the use of integrated EW for the first time. Israel used fighter aircraft fitted with electronic devices and flying at high altitudes over Egypt to suppress the Soviet made SA-2 missiles and radars. Bedouin members recruited by Israeli intelligence used special equipment to jam communication between Egyptian land and other forces. Simultaneously, the Israeli radio operators who spoke fluent Egyptian Arabic created confusion in the Air Defence nets, fighters and air traffic control. The Six Day War was a splendid victory of the Israeli Defence Forces (mainly the Air Force) over Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The period of the Cold War saw exponential growth in EW technologies, some of which is operational even now. There are numerous instances during the Cold War where the electronic spectrum was used to gain ascendency over the adversary. The United States (US), Russia, Western Europe, Israel and Hungary amongst others developed large scale integrated EW programmes. Sale of high technology EW equipment was used by both sides as political leverage. It was during this period that India inducted specialist EW equipment into the army.

The two Gulf Wars saw the utilisation of advanced EW equipment on a large scale. For about two decades post the second Gulf War, Cyber Warfare gained prominence and development of EW programmes faced a few challenges especially in the Western block. However, the emergence of the Cold War 2.0 has revitalised EW development programmes across the globe.

Staging areas near the international boundaries are now extensively connected using optical fibre and other non-radiating media…

Emerging Trends

Two specific instances in the recent past have brought considerable focus of the security community on the unprecedented technological advancements made in the field of EW, which would be worth mentioning.

USS Donald Cook and the Russian EW System Khibiny

In April 2014, the USS Donald Cook was deployed in the Black Sea after the Crimea and Ukraine crises. For its protection, the USS Donald Cook had onboard the integrated ‘Aegis Combat System’. On April 12, 2014, an unarmed SU-24 of the Russian Air Force, equipped with the Khibiny Electronic Counter Measure Suite, made twelve low-level runs over the USS Donald Cook; ignoring repeated warnings from the ship. This incident was reported extensively by the Russian media as a case of a Russian EW super weapon rendering the state-of-the-art US ship defence redundant. A few alleged comments by the crew of USS Donald Cook on social media added fuel to the fire. Expectedly, the US denied the reports and retaliated with a media blitz of its own. However, this could not completely suppress the Russian claims.

Deployment of the Russian Krasukha-4 EW suite at Latakia Airfield

The Syrian crisis afforded the Russians an opportunity to display military hardware on an unprecedented scale. It also deployed its most modern Krasukha-4 Jammer system at the Latakia airfield in Syria, which was the base of the Russian Air Force in its operations against the Syrian rebels. It can be argued that use of such advanced equipment was not to thwart the Syrian rebels, but was intended to showcase its niche capability in a sphere where Russia has taken a leading position in the world. The Krasuka-4 functions at the cutting edge of technology. It is a mobile ground-based jammer which can interfere with the surveillance radars of LEO military satellites such as the US Lacrosse/Oynx series, AWACS radars, surveillance radars and GPS/guidance systems onboard drones. In effect, it can create an invisibility dome of 300 km where friendly forces can operate with impunity. The success of the Russian Air Force in Syria is being attributed by some to this equipment including the fact that NATO surveillance was effectively interfered with.4

The two examples given above are indicative of tremendous technological leaps in EW equipment. It signifies the evolution and weaponisation of agile, very high-power, broad-band systems working from small platforms including aerial platforms, while at the same time ensuring own survivability. All these factors were considered the holy grail of EW equipment design and undoubtedly denote the shift of these technologies from the laboratories to the battlefield. In the subsequent paragraphs, the future trends in EW technologies will be identified and elaborated.

Development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) has been in progress since the 1940s…

Technology Trends


To the layman, a jammer is synonymous with EW. It is undoubtedly the most visible component of EW. Modern jammers are significantly different from their decade-old cousins. Equipment such as the Krasukha-4 or the Turkish KORAL ground-based jammer can generate very high power output over a broadband of frequencies which can be effective at distances up to 300km; a big jump from the previous generation of jammers which had limited ranges and effectiveness while in broadband jamming mode. Some reports also suggest that equipment such as the Russian communications suppression station Murmansk-BN is capable of jamming about 20 spot frequencies at ranges up to 5,000km.5 In order to achieve these high ranges, jammers are no longer restricted to the line-of-sight mode and even use reflected signals from the ionosphere. Shoot and scoot capability is available to these high power jammers based on high mobility trucks with built-in generators. Such mobility was feasible earlier in low power stand-alone jammers. Future jammers are likely to be expendable (including air dropped) and mounted on unmanned ground vehicles.

Airborne Platforms

EW equipment is gradually shifting from the ground-based platforms to airborne platforms due to miniaturisation and better electro-magnetic interference management, especially those dealing with Electronic Support (ES) functions such as interception and monitoring. Increasingly, EW equipment is now based on aircraft and drones because of its inherent advantages. Airborne systems, though limited by size and power output, have the advantage of range and reach.6 Jammer pods used in dedicated EW aircraft were generally more capable than those mounted on other kinds of aircraft. Fifth generation aircraft such as the US F-35 are capable of stand-off as well as stand-in jamming using power outputs almost ten times that of legacy fighters including dedicated EW aircraft. Reports indicate that such truly multi-role aircraft operating in high threat AD environment will be more effective than single mission electronic attack legacy aircraft.7 The pairing of existing UAV platforms with Jammer Pods (like the MQ-9 Reaper with a Northrop Grumman Jammer Pod) brings in an entirely new dimension in which the spectrum battle can be fought in an integrated manner using both ground and aviation assets. The future may see a gradual shift when some of the functions of EW aircraft are taken on by capable, multirole UAV platforms.8

Anti Frequency Hopping Techniques

Frequency agile EW systems were developed in order to counter the emergence of Frequency Hopping (FH) radios. The development of FH techniques is an interesting study in itself. What started as a low hop rate, narrow band FH, has graduated to very high rate hopping, over a broadband and low linger duration. Presently, proliferation of FH sets has seen the virtual extinction of the single frequency tactical radio which was the mainstay in most armies till even a decade back. Barrage jamming was traditionally used as a means to counter narrow band FH links. Present day EW systems are high hop rate systems with very low ‘look through’ time, thereby enabling interception and jamming of even complex FH signals. The technique is called ‘Follow On’ jamming. The physics of transmission of electro-magnetic waves, however, puts a technical limit on the reduction of ‘look through’ time, hence follow on jamming techniques have their own limitations. Modern trends in anti FH techniques such as Pulsed Noise Proactive Jamming resemble a mix of proactive barrage jamming over a narrow band in a pseudo random sequence, intended in degrading the signal by just the minimum quantum so as to make it unintelligible at the receiving end.

Breaching the Electronic – Cyber – Optical Gap

The term ‘spectrum warfare’ is being used to denote the blending of electronic and optical warfare, while Cyber-EW systems are simultaneously emerging in mainstream military space. Spectrum warfare seeks to combine EW technologies such as electronic jammers, interception, radars, electronic spoofing and deception along with electro-optical technologies such as infrared sensors, multi-spectral and hyper spectral sensors, visible-light sensors and laser technologies. There is a trend to develop integrated programmes and equipment so that the enemy can be targeted across the spectrum including optical.9 The convergence of Cyber and Electronic Warfare is a natural progression. While EW is the coarser and close-in tool, Cyber Warfare is more targeted and specifically focused on chosen computer systems, networks and applications.10 Interestingly the US Army has updated its field manual and released FM 3-12 on “Cyber and Electronic Warfare Operations” in April 2017. The EW systems of the future will have Cyber Offence and Defence capability and will operate at the cutting edge of the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), a distinct shift from the strategic level at which cyber operations are focused presently. Such equipment will have the capability to carry out cyber malware injection off the air into the networks of the adversary including air gapped and off-line systems.11

Bridging the Military-Civil Divide

Traditionally, EW has been restricted to the military domain and was a niche technology. However, the development of EW systems has followed the growth trajectory of communication systems. The growth of communication technologies such as microwave, radio, WiFi and cellular services has been powered by the establishment and quick adaptation of common worldwide standards and protocols. A large segment of military communications also adopted these standards and protocols due to the ease of procurement and integration. In the domain of EW too, a similar trend was seen and it became easy to buy a jammer or a direction finding system off-the-shelf at relatively low prices. This brought about a proliferation of use of EW systems like jammers in purely non-military role or at best, a law enforcement role. The manufacture of hardware for advanced EW systems is likely to see a similar trend and components, designs and manufacturing is likely to go the dual use way, especially equipment required in large numbers (IED jammers, cell phone jammers, cell phone interceptors and direction finders) which will be used in anti-terrorist operations and for homeland security. This model will invariably have its own security concerns which will be addressed at the application layer and use of unique software driven protocols, encryption.

Use of Non Standard Protocols

The advanced EW systems being used for pure military use which can effectively disrupt and paralyse the operations of the enemy, are however likely to see a greater reliance on non-standard protocols, non-standard modulation schemes and proprietary wave forms. It is in a way going back on the methodology used in the older versions of EW equipment which used unique protocols specific to the manufacturer and equipment type.

Beyond Brute Force 

Brute force in EW is no longer an option in the modern battlefield, since it leads to the disclosure of own location and causes fratricide. The requirement is to carry out ‘surgical strikes’ in the spectrum and disengage in time. In order to circumvent the problem of fratricide, the concept of blue force tracking using Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) signals even in the RF spectrum is being developed. In case IFF code is received, the EW system skips or stops its jamming operations. In addition to maintaining the equipment and frequency libraries of the adversary, modern EW equipment will also maintain similar detailed libraries of friendly forces.

Unmanned and Autonomous EW Systems

The cognitive capability of the soldiers operating EW systems was a key factor in determining the success of operations. Armies have been known to place selected and specially trained personnel at the controls of such equipment. Modern systems are however witnessing a distinct shift from intimate human control to fully automated systems. This is understandable considering the speed of operations and the data volume to be handled. EW systems of the future once programmed for certain tasks, are likely to operate in autonomous mode. The associated technologies are closely guarded, since advanced heuristics, machine learning and data analytics can add extract much more from similarly placed hardware and equipment.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs)       

Development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) has been in progress since the 1940s with the development of the German experimental weapons. Successes achieved in the laboratory and the test ranges have not seen commensurate translation into the battlefield. Use of DEW in the RF spectrum which can disrupt communication links, navigation links and telemetry links and against small, mobile platforms like UAVs, is indicative of the things to come. The development of Radio Frequency (RF). disrupters as protection against drones has tremendous potential. It also signifies the use of the spectrum to achieve kinetic effects, a significant shift from traditional EW philosophy.

Software Defined Radio (SDR) based EW

DRs have transformed the way radios are used in the battlefield. These sets are agile and the same platform provides the ability to use different frequency bands, modulation schemes, FH Rates, FH Bands, power output, gain and other parameters. Due to their versatility, these sets can switch over to the EW role while free from communication role. Now that SDR is a reality and increasingly the traditional radio inventory of armies across the world is being changed to SDR, many short range and discrete EW functions are likely to be taken over by such sets in the TBA. The SDR sets are also likely to be deployed closer to the enemy forces than traditional EW equipment, thus enhancing the effectiveness to interfere with the enemy links.

Convergence of COMINT and ELINT

Information value from intercepted communication is reducing by the day due to communication systems switching to better FH schemes, use of non-standard protocols, encryption and other ECCM techniques. Staging areas near the international boundaries are now extensively connected using optical fibre and other non-radiating media. Hence the previously practiced methods of picking up enemy Order of Battle from radio transmissions made during mobilisation and preparations at the staging areas will not yield any dividends. ELINT, on the other hand, depended on picking up signatures of enemy radars and other transmitters and compare the same to existing libraries in order to evolve a larger intelligence picture. Gradually, we can see a perceptible shift in the way modern EW systems are looking at COMINT in the same way as ELINT. Advanced receivers can carry out ‘fine grain’ analysis of enemy communication transmitters and radar transmitters and carry out radio finger printing. This can involve receivers based on UAVs, special aircraft, ground-based or satellite-based. This also involves advanced data management capability and automation.


The increasing convergence of electronic, cyber and optical domains will require a perceptible shift in war fighting techniques. Since the avenues of technological advancement in these fields are limitless, new generations of equipment will emerge at a rapid rate. The challenge would be to integrate them into the physical domain of war-fighting and achieve the desired effect on the adversary. The relatively new field of Quantum Computing has the potential of creating a new generation of satellites, radars and communication systems. Such equipment can render even the most modern EW systems redundant. Hence equipment designers will have to constantly counter the risk of obsolescence.

As a nation, India needs to focus on this area with renewed interest. Buying of technology is not a permanent solution and EW needs to be tackled as an integrated long-term programme at the national level. The focus of the programme should be on development of indigenous knowledge base, design and manufacturing capability. The government’s ‘Make in India’ programme could be the ideal engine which could further leverage efforts towards achieving optimum capability.




3. Electronic Warfare: Element of Strategy and Multiplier of Combat Power By Don E. Gordon, Pergamon Press, Maxwell House, New York



6. Airborne Electronic Warfare: Silent Force Multiplier Air Marshal Anil Chopra






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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Subhasis Das

is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies and carrying out research on the subject of “Wargaming and Decision Making”. His areas of interest include Cyber-Electronic Warfare.

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