The U.S. Military Is Losing The Electromagnetic Warfare Race


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

4209 The U.S. Military Is Losing The Electromagnetic Warfare Race
Without a Cold War rival, the United States' development of advanced electromagnetic warfare techniques has fallen behind. Nightman1965/Shutterstock

The future of warfare seems like it’ll be an unrecognizable place, more akin to something from science fiction. Jazz-playing robots are being used as precursors to empathetic machines that will aid soldiers on the battlefield. “Vampire” drones will fly into warzones and sublimate into a gas in sunlight. And both the U.S. and China have developed laser weapons that can shoot down small, fast-moving targets.

But a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) details how the race to become the world leader in electromagnetic warfare (EW) is being lost by the U.S.


For some time now, humans have been able to both detect and generate all frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), and different types of EMS radiation can be used in different ways. Radio waves, for example, can be used to communicate. Microwaves, if focused, can be used to dramatically heat up targets.

The various communicative, navigational, defensive and offensive capabilities of harnessed and directed EMS radiation has been fully embraced by the world’s militaries for much of the last century, and the recent report by the CSBA details the current state of its use in the U.S. military – and its rivals. It’s not good news for the U.S.: the report cites a Department of Defense (DoD) assessment that, since the closure of the Cold War, the U.S. has “failed to keep pace” with China and Russia due to a lack of a motivating, equally capable rival, which of course used to be the Soviet Union.

Image credit: An air defence radar. Dejan Lazarevic/Shutterstock

Electromagnetic warfare can be divided into two types: active, wherein directed energy is used to either locate, disable or destroy hostile targets, and passive, wherein the EMS is used to provide cloaking or shielding to allied units operating in hostile territory.


An example of these two capabilities combining involves a decoy group and an attack group of military units approaching hostile territory. A decoy unit of autonomous targets sends low energy signals towards the hostiles, causing them to be diverted away from the actual attack group. These low-energy pulses can also be directed at incoming salvos of cruise missiles, causing them to veer off target and splashdown harmlessly into the sea.

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with an EM disruption system flies over enemy territory and knocks out their communications. Then, shielded by a “cover pulse” of EM radiation – which the enemy only sees as “noise” on their sensors – moves in for the attack.

Technologies that may be useful for possible future adoption are also described, including a new jamming system called Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM). This system, attached to planes and ships, is able to record an incoming signal, alter it, and send false returns to an enemy sensor. This device represents a shift in the types of EW used by the U.S. military: one that does not overload hostile sensors, but instead deceives them.

The report highlights the concern of the increasing range of ballistic missiles acquired by potentially hostile nations. To detect threats further away, more powerful EMS sensors will be required, which inevitably will make them more detectable. The DoD laments that the cloaking technologies, such as the “cover pulse” method, aren’t advanced enough yet to deal with this.


The authors recommend that the newly created EW executive committee (EXCOM) should oversee the development and implementation of a new vision for how U.S. forces will once again dominate EW.

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