21.07.2023

Fighting in the electro-magnetic spectrum

Image Credit: Australian Defence Force | Author: Max Blenkin (Australian Defence Magazine)
Electronic warfare (EW) can be a difficult and complex concept. Here’s how one EW specialist explains it to some non-experts.

“When I over-simplify it to my friends or family, I say to them you know when you watch a movie and a bad guy tries to shoot a plane down and the planes goes beep. We make the plane go beep,” said Rian Whitby, Program Manager of DEWC Services.

DEWC, formed in 2011, is an Adelaide-based specialist command control, communications and computing, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare (C4ISREW) company, engaged in a range of defence projects and regularly partnering with the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, industry and academia.

This week, DEWC expanded its footprint, opening an office in Canberra. 

In an area of constantly evolving technology, that includes helping Defence be a smart buyer through capability development and definition, based on emerging technology and threats, and maturing new technology to enter service.

To most everyone outside Defence and many on the inside, EW is a little-known topic. The technologies can be complicated and much of it is highly classified. That means Australia’s substantial EW expertise is little appreciated in the outside community.

“DEWC Services is a professional service provider. We are embedded and partnered with Defence supporting C4ISREW across the entire capability life cycle,” Whitby said.

“DEWC’s origins are firmly rooted in electronic warfare. The business was formed around a small cadre of expert practitioners who were deeply passionate about EW and recognised they could do more in their post-defence careers service than simply disappear into the broader defence industry.”

Whitby said DEWC was created as a hub for a community of EW professionals and over the last 3-4 years, it had changed shape and size with the increasing convergence of cyber and electro-magnetic activities. 

“All modern systems contain or interface with a computer. The battlespace is becoming increasingly software-defined and more agile. In this context it is important to recognise that modern EW is more than just jamming, chaff and flares,” he said.

“The breadth of Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations includes everything from assured communication links and precision navigation and timing to spectrum management and exploitation.”

Whitby said DEWC had supported a range of Defence platforms including the jammers on the now-retired Classic Hornets and EW systems on the E-7A Wedgetail, Tiger ARHs and C-130J-30 Hercules.

As an example, DEWC supports the ESM (electronic support measures) on the Navy’s fleet of Lockheed Martin MH-60R (Romeo) helicopters.

Specifically, that’s the ALQ-210 ESM, which detects and classifies electromagnetic emissions, providing operators with situational awareness and threat warning.

When it became apparent that Seasprite helicopters would never work and the project was cancelled, Australia purchased an eventual total of 24 Romeos. The same aircraft is in service with the US Navy and Australia enjoys a close support relationship with the much larger parent.

However, Australia delivers substantial support through embedded personnel in the US in-country sustainment. So why not leave ESM support to the US?

The answer is that in our operating regions and with our force posture, electromagnetic systems encountered are likely to be different or have different ‘meaning’ to Australian MH-60R operators when compared with their US Navy equivalents.

“It (Romeo) has been proven to be the right platform for our needs,” Whitby said.

“It was stable and mature. The maturity of the logistics and engineering support system really shone through. The relationships Australia has had with US Navy and Lockheed Martin have been absolutely stellar.

“It has been something that we at DEWC have been fortunate to be part of.

“We engage directly with both Australian and US-based Lockheed Martin staff when it comes to supporting this platform, providing feedback on the ESM system and how we can upgrade and update and improve the support infrastructure.”

ESM works by comparing an intercepted signal against an electronic library of signals. That means someone somewhere first must have intercepted that signal and worked out what it was.

That was no big problem back when most hostile systems originated in the Warsaw Pact, with familiar characteristics including known waveforms, but modern-day radars are much more sophisticated.     

One emerging capability is the concept of library-less ESM. Whitby said threat radars, no matter how sophisticated, still needed to obey the laws of physics to conduct certain functions such as providing long-range target acquisition for weapons-quality tracking.

“The concept is that instead of trying to specifically identify radar systems, if you identify them based on their assessed function, derived from operating characteristics, resulting in a much lower requirement for specific intelligence on emerging or adaptive threats,” he said.

“Effectively, you determine what it can or can’t do based on its operating characteristics.

“Proving and maturing these capabilities has been an exciting journey that we have been working on alongside Defence for a number of years now as we learn and employ these and other concepts for Cognitive Electronic Warfare systems.”