By Loren Thompson    March 15, 2016

The digital revolution has transformed America’s Army. In the years since 9-11, Army ground and aviation units have acquired a host of new sensors and communications systems that allow soldiers to quickly establish information dominance in the fight against terrorists.  Those units now train on the assumption they can run rings around any enemy when it comes to knowing what is happening in the fog of war, and using that knowledge to defeat elusive adversaries.

There’s only one problem: in future wars, the Army is likely to face enemies far better equipped than it is to seize control of the electromagnetic spectrum and exploit it to tactical advantage.  Two decades of fighting rag-tag terrorist groups with scant resources has dulled its edge in electronic warfare, while countries like Russia and China have worked hard to maintain and expand their capabilities.

To say the Army isn’t ready for what lies ahead is an understatement: if it got in a fight with Russian troops in Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic states, the Army could quickly see all of its key targeting and communications systems shut down by enemy jammers.  It might even lose access to GPS signals, which soldiers depend on to know where they and their allies are on the battlefield.  GPS signals are not hard to jam — they’re relatively weak — and the Russians know exactly how to do this.

Basically, all they would need to do is load up the relevant frequencies with enough interference so receivers can’t get a fix on where they are.  At that point, the fog of war would close in to a degree where soldiers would be cut off and isolated if their tactical communications links were being jammed too.  The Army is used to depending on the electronic-warfare planes of other services to cope with such threats, but with Russian air defenses extending over most of the Baltic region and Poland, that might not be an option in Eastern Europe.

This is the “maneuver space” where the U.S. Army could lose its next war.

So how did the Army get into this position of extreme vulnerability without grasping its predicament?  A report released last July by the prestigious Defense Science Board provided three explanations.  First, electronic-warfare skills were neglected for 25 years after the Cold War ended, because military planners thought the threat had gone away.  Second, during that time, electronics production largely shifted abroad, so that now countries like China can match the U.S. in many digital technologies relevant to warfighting.

The third factor is that potential enemies have watched closely as the Army engaged in continuous counter-insurgency warfare since 9-11, and now have a precise idea of what it can do and what it can’t do.  For instance, the Army learned how to jam the wireless detonators of improvised explosive devices because those were the biggest threat to soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanstan.  But it didn’t learn how to secure its communications links or access to GPS signals because that wasn’t an issue.

Armed with the lessons they have learned, though, the Russians could quickly turn it into a very big issue in Europe.  It’s not that Moscow has fielded the latest in gee-whiz digital technology, just that it knows a sitting duck when it sees one.  Denying spectrum access to an enemy operating close to Russian borders is no big challenge for Moscow if that enemy hasn’t taken steps to protect its electronics.  You just identify the relevant frequencies and fill them up with enough noise so receivers can’t work.

Although the Army’s rapid and ultimately successful response to the danger posed by improvised explosives proves it is capable of dealing with electronic threats, it has barely awakened to the danger that jamming and other electromagnetic tactics poise to its battlefield effectiveness.  Responsibility for electronic warfare has shifted among various offices and locations with a frequency that bespeaks low priority.  More established warfighting communities within the service view it as an afterthought, if not an impediment to accomplishing their missions.

For instance, soldiers engaged in collecting signals intelligence don’t want jammers to interfere with their eavesdropping.  Soldiers engaged in striking enemy formations from the air or ground fret about the “fratricidal” effect of jamming on their access to GPS and tactical links.  Soldiers engaged in executing cyber operations think that using malware to attack enemy networks is a more elegant way of suppressing capabilities than electronic jamming.

So even though the Army has generated doctrine, instituted training, and established a cadre of specialists, nobody at the top of the service has a real sense of ownership over electronic warfare.  Perhaps that explains why, as land-forces correspondent Jen Judson of Defense News reported last week, the Army isn’t planning to field an effective system for detecting and jamming hostile signals until 2023.

In the Army’s defense, the top leadership of the Pentagon and the other services, except for the Navy, has not been much better at recognizing the emerging danger that electronic attack poses to the joint force.  In 2010, a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned lack of leadership was the biggest problem with U.S. electronic-warfare capabilities.  Two years later, the Government Accountability Office complained that the defense department “has not established an effective departmentwide governance framework for managing and overseeing electronic warfare.”

The Defense Science Board said pretty much the same thing again last year.  With the exception of Boeing’s BA +1.90%EA-18G Growler jamming aircraft built for the Navy and the BAE Systemsjamming suite on the tri-service F-35 fighter, there just isn’t all that much going on that will reach the force in the near future.  Raytheon RTN -0.95% is developing an agile Next Generation Jammer that eventually will be deployed on the Growler, but none of this equipment will be controlled by the Army, and it might not be available to support ground troops in a shooting war.

The Army needs to get its act together on electronic warfare.  As one of its few senior experts on the subject told correspondent Judson of Defense News last week, all of the hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons that the service has bought to go fight in places like Eastern Europe can be negated if soldiers lack timely and reliable access to the electromagnetic spectrum.  Somebody needs to stand up and say, “I will champion this mission, because I grasp what it will mean if our enemies are better at electronic warfare than America’s Army is.”

(Loren Thompson – I focus on the strategic, economic and business implications of defense spending as the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates. Prior to holding my present positions, I was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. I have also taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. I hold doctoral and masters degrees in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor of science degree in political science from Northeastern University. Disclosure: The Lexington Institute receives funding from many of the nation’s leading defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and United Technologies.)