Defence’s electromagnetic spectrum challenges
24 Jun 2024|

The Australian Defence Force is ill prepared for a modern conflict. It is not doing nearly enough to ensure dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), the kind of energy used in communications and by many sensors.

The ADF must fully exploit the EMS to command forces, to direct weapons and to know what’s going on, and it must be able to prevent an enemy from doing the same.

In some areas, it is well equipped for these tasks but in others far too weakly. The biggest gaps are in maritime, air and space sensors and effectors; spectrum awareness; and communications. Some projects to improve capability are publicly disclosed, though not in any detail, and maybe a few more are proceeding behind the scenes.

But we know that, overall, not enough is happening and certainly not soon enough. We know because Defence’s 10-year acquisition plan, the Integrated Investment Program (IIP), includes only $720 million in approved funding for electromagnetic warfare, just 0.78 percent of the $92 billion in all approved acquisition funding for the period.

$720 million usually doesn’t buy much defence capability, especially when spread across the three services.

Cyber warfare, rightly, has become an important focus for defence, which is putting significant spending into it. But if a country loses the competition in the EMS, it will lose the war.

Defence depends entirely on EMS transmission and reception for situational awareness (with radars and other sensors); command, control and communications; weapon data links; navigation; and collecting information from remote sensors such as sonobuoys. Many missiles rely on EMS energy for homing, either using onboard radars or focusing on the target’s transmissions. Defence also delivers military effects non-kinetically with EMS energy.

To win in the EMS, the ADF needs to be well equipped to jam or confuse the other side’s EMS activity, collect and pass data smoothly despite enemy EMS countermeasures, and, overarchingly, monitor what is going on in the EMS.

Whichever force can control the use of the EMS and deny it to the opponent holds a distinct military advantage. Lethal and non-lethal effects employed to deny capabilities to an adversary all rely on it. If the ADF can’t manoeuvre within it, or dominate its use with electromagnetic attack, then most of Australia’s major spending in the IIP are worthless.

Some EMS related projects must be accelerated, including modernised Joint Data Networks under Joint Project 9347 and Tactical Communications Networks under Land 200; the latter will incorporate manoeuvring within the spectrum (hopping between frequencies and transmitting in a wide band of frequencies, called spread spectrum). To better monitor what’s going on in the EMS, we need to fast-track and synchronise Joint Project 9321 Electromagnetic Battle Management, the navy’s Sea 5011 Maritime Electromagnetic Manoeuvre Warfare, and Joint Project 2248 Spectrum Management. These capabilities also need to be extended down to the tactical level. Other important additions would be Next Generation Jammers for Growler aircraft, more Land 555 Phase 6 electromagnetic-warfare protected mobility vehicles, new maritime capabilities or even high power directed energy weapons. With such systems, we would have a strong ability to manoeuvre and fight in the EMS.

In response to the release of the Defence Strategic Review, the updated IIP has just one paragraph dedicated to electromagnetic warfare. The 10-year plan for mostly unapproved funding for electromagnetic warfare out to fiscal 2033–34 totals $2.7 billion to $3.7 billion, just 10 percent as much as the space and cyber investments or less than 1 percent of the total IIP.

And most of this unapproved funding for electromagnetic warfare is to be delivered towards the end of the decade. In 2021 the then commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phillip Davidson, said conflict over Taiwan could occur by 2027. Yet we have all our EMS capability eggs in the post-2027 basket.

China and Russia have both spent heavily on capabilities to dominate the EMS. In the South China Sea, China’s efforts apply to the maritime, air, land and space domains. Its focus is on ensuring surveillance and control near contested waters and its mainland, while countering coalition weapons, radar, communications and space capabilities.

Russia brags about its ability to interfere with the use of the spectrum. It has, however, had mixed success in countering Ukraine’s small drones, other weapons and communications. Australia should be looking closely at that experience.

The US is spending heavily in EMS-enabled capabilities. Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy 2020 and the US Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations publication provide guidance and direction on operating in a congested, contested and constrained EMS environment.

The EMS has attracted enough concern to be included in AUKUS Pillar 2; it’s in the technology partnership’s inaugural project for the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator effort, with strong words and tight timeframes. Capitalising on these emerging technologies will require bold action and early money to come to fruition and have any impact.

For Defence to gain any real military advantage from the $280 billion allocated to advanced platforms, weapons and sensors in the IIP, it must invest in capabilities that can assure their access to the EMS and prevent adversaries from dominating it. Advancing Australia’s ability to dominate the spectrum also provides Defence with escalatory non-lethal options, which enhances its ability to achieve its strategy of defence by denial. But to have any real impact, these investments need to be made now.