The growing importance of electronic warfare (EW) was underlined at NATO's November annual summit, when the organisation placed it alongside insurgency and terrorism as one of the main threats facing members in the coming decade. There are already 100 cyber attacks (a growing branch of EW) on NATO every day, according to NATO's Cyber Defence and Countermeasures Branch.
The vulnerability of NATO's IT systems was highlighted in 1999, when Serbs flooded the organisation with thousands of emails to protest the alliance's bombing campaign in Kosovo.
But a more recent war is having a major influence on the US army, which is seeking to learn lessons from the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. The army says that the campaign demonstrated that cyber and electronic warfare precede an armed attack on a country. However, while the US military says it is good at developing countermeasures against the armed forces of other countries, it is much harder to mount a defence against terrorist or criminal organisations. How, for example, do you interrupt the command and control systems used by Somali pirates, which are based on secure but readily available IT systems?
Jamming in Iraq and Afghanistan
The military has for some time successfully been using EW to counter one of the most lethal terrorist weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely the improvised explosive device (IED). Counter radio-controlled electronic warfare (CREW) devices are mounted on vehicles and use jamming to prevent remote controls from detonating roadside bombs.
Coalition forces have had the most success in Iraq, where electronics can be used to scan for remote-controlled bombs and jam their frequencies.
In Afghanistan, however, roadside bombs tend to lack the circuitry that makes them easier to detect and thwart. Afghan bombs are remarkably less sophisticated, officials say, typically relying on fertilizer and diesel fuel.
Furthermore, in March 2010 it was reported that Afghan insurgents had obtained details of several of the US systems (known as Warlocks) the military uses to jam the signals that detonate IEDs. According to a private report from the Army Counterintelligence Center, published on March 18, 2008: "It is possible that Warlock systems captured in Afghanistan were sent to Iran for reverse engineering and for use in developing countermeasures to Warlock."
While the use of jammers in Iraq and Afghanistan has undoubtedly saved many lives, it has had unwelcome side effects. By March 2010, for example, the deployment of jammers and other EQ systems had polluted the airwaves at Afghanistan's main air base, Bagram, to such an extent that more than 200 systems reportedly couldn't communicate with one another.
The so-called problems of 'electronic fratricide' earlier appeared in Iraq, where jammers made it difficult to control drones and ground robots. In 2008, for example, the US Navy complained that its Silver Hawk UAVs were disabled by interference from other military electronics. However, the problem was first noted during the 1990 campaign to liberate Kuwait.
One solution could be to develop jammers with a synchronisation subsystem connected to the time-synchronised cryptography of the friendly communications net. As a result, the jammer is aware, on a real-time basis, of the frequencies to which the friendly communications network will next be hopping. The jammer's awareness of these future frequencies will allow those frequencies to be 'locked out' of the jammer's transmission band.
EDO Corp., a division of ITT Corp., developed the Warlock jammers, and the US Army spent $469m to acquire them in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010. The service plans to spend another $711m on the systems between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015.
China's growing EW threat
The US is also concerned about the emphasis China is placing on EW. Alarmingly, a US Congress policy review panel in November 2008 found that: "China is aggressively developing its power to wage cyber warfare and is now in a position to delay or disrupt the deployment of America's military forces around the world, potentially giving it the upper hand in any conflict."
In response, the US has established a cyber command employing up to 1,100 people. Other Western governments are also placing an increasing emphasis on cyber warfare. The UK, for example, is devoting more energy to understanding and developing 'weaponry' for cyber warfare than any other military area, the armed forces chief general David Richards said in November.
Despite large defence cuts in other areas, Britain announced in October it would spend an extra €650m on cyber security after a new National Security Strategy highlighted the area as one of the top threats the country faced.
The issue came to prominence in September, when security experts suggested that the Stuxnet computer worm could have been created by a state to attack nuclear facilities in Iran.
The experts said that Stuxnet was intended to wreck the centrifuges used to concentrate uranium – a key part of the nuclear power generation process.
Reports suggest that Iran has taken thousands of centrifuges offline in recent months and its nuclear programme is known to have suffered significant delays.
In September, the head of Britain's communications spy agency confirmed that countries were already using cyber techniques to attack each other.
"I often say to people, even today you might take out a country's infrastructure by bombing the hell out of it. Within no time at all you’ll do it through cyber attack," Richards was quoted as saying. "It's a huge area of risk."
EW is perhaps the most dynamic area of warfare today. The US has already made huge progress as a result of its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rapid pace of technological progress means that new threats appear constantly. Thus, spending on EW is likely to grow at an exponential rate in the coming years.