Electronic Warfare Sensors in the Hands—and Eyes—of Frontline Warfighters
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
The application and dissemination of electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and signals intelligence (SIGINT) to tactical-level echelons in today’s U.S. military beckons for improvement. A simple adaptation and consolidation of five existing technologies can provide better situational awareness and understanding to the frontline warfighter by using a real-time, intermediate-range EW/SIGINT sensor to present electronic signatures on both a vehicle and helmet-mounted display for combat vehicle commanders in the close fight.¹
Most of the existing technology that is required for this unique adaptation is already fielded in the U.S. defense arsenal; needing only improved interoperability among components. If properly designed and equipped, maneuver formations will have better situational awareness and understanding of the battlefield than currently achieved at the tactical level in today’s military. The proposed SIGINT/EW sensor and augmented reality display would bridge the information gap between the sensor and the warfighter; empowering maneuver units, at the individual fighting vehicle level, to access real-time EW collection capabilities while in the fight.
The Technology and its Application to Intelligence in Military Operations
The distribution of current SIGINT/EW sensors in the U.S. defense arsenal leaves something to be desired, specifically among tactical-level units. Rotational units at the Army’s National Training Center (NTC) learn this lesson regularly. In May 2020, an Observer-Controller Trainer (OCT) at the NTC made the eye-opening comment that, “If I can see you like this, it doesn’t matter how much camo you have,” (see Figure 1)² in reference to the usefulness—or uselessness—of camo-nets.³ This is a lesson routinely learned, with much heartache, by rotational units. Why is it many units seem oblivious to their own EW signature? The more pertinent question is, what is stopping rotational units from using the same available technology against the opposition force at NTC or in real-world conflicts?
Partly, there is a lack of awareness of such technology among tactical units at battalion and brigade echelons. Maneuver commanders will not utilize, appreciate, or request such enablers if they are unfamiliar with them. A contributing factor to this general ignorance is the fact that many of these systems are sensitive and classified. The EW specialists I served with seemed to take great satisfaction in the secrecy of their systems, not allowing me to even see inside their vehicles to view the display for myself. I never once saw an EW sensor display in a battalion or brigade tactical operations center (TOC). The benefits of these systems are diminished by the delay it takes for EW specialists to communicate with maneuver personnel who need the information to make timely and accurate decisions.
All the required technology currently exists, much of which is already fielded in the U.S. defense arsenal. Minimal research and development expenses would be required. The majority of time and expense would be in the effort to achieve interoperability between such technologies in order to produce a synergistic end product. The helmet-mounted monocular display, Figure 2⁴, already exists in the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System (IHADSS) used by AH-64 Apache crews.⁵ A similar system could be installed on combat vehicle crew (CVC) helmets used by ground tactical vehicle crews.⁶ The Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR) and Joint Capabilities Release (JCR) mission command and situational awareness software already exist and are in widespread use in the U.S. military.⁷ Both systems already communicate interoperably; and the DAGR, when connected properly, allows friendly forces to populate on the JCR tracker (displayed as friendly unit icons on the screen). Further, the DAGR informs the vehicle JCR, to which it is connected, the azimuth of forward orientation. Theoretically, the same capability could be applied to the IHADSS system, which is already capable of interpreting where the wearer is looking.⁸ Applicable technology already exists in modern virtual reality software available on the open market, and in smartphone technology that determines the orientation of the phone using magnetometer and gimbal technology.⁹
The final piece of needed technology is the SIGINT/EW sensor, which has the purpose of feeding information into the wearer’s helmet-mounted monocular display and vehicle (or TOC) mounted JCR receiver screen. The U.S. defense arsenal already has an abundance of EW sensors and systems capable of a variety of SIGINT collection. Two particular EW sensors, the Tactical Electronic Warfare System (TEWS), Figure 4¹⁰; and Communications Electronic Support Measures (C-ESM), Figure 5¹¹, would suffice for the proposed application; though others (unknown to me due to classification) may be more suitable. What is more important than the specific system is the capability of the system, or similar ones, to collect intermediate range EW signatures that would be beneficial knowledge to a maneuver commander in the close-fight. TEWS enables EW targeting and support to SIGINT with added Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) capabilities.¹² The mobile C-ESM is particularly suited for reconnaissance missions, getting units to the “last mile.”¹³
Examples of Application
This technological adaptation would improve situational awareness and understanding among reconnaissance and security organizations. An EW sensor in the hands of frontline scouts can also be used for queuing, mixing, or redundancy in a larger intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) scheme. Reconnaissance units are already equipped with standard night vision, thermal vision, long-range optics, long-range targeting optics and lasers, and more simple optics and sensors (such as motion detectors). Why not further add to the recon arsenal by providing SIGINT/EW sensing technology? The SIGINT/EW sensor and monocular display could be game-changing in a counter-reconnaissance fight, whereby gaining and maintaining one of the eight forms of contact with the enemy first may decide the outcome of the pending battle.¹⁴
An intermediate range (2.5-5km) EW sensor, with a 2-D vehicle-mounted display, and a monocular 3-D helmet-mounted display (HMD), would be advantageous for armored fighting vehicles in maneuver formations. Stryker, Bradley, or tank vehicle commanders, in most instances, spend a significant portion of their time standing at nametape defilade in the cupula of the turret. The open-hatch position provides the best situational awareness for vehicle commanders, especially in difficult terrain or when maneuvering with dismounted personnel in the vicinity of the vehicle. It is for this reason the monocular HMD system is beneficial. Not only does it enable use while in the nametape defilade position, but the design of the HMD allows it to be moved away from the eye (similar to the PVS-14 monocular NVG). This ensures combat vehicle commanders can still effectively use the optics and sights within the fighting vehicle. The 2-D vehicle-mounted display is important because it ensures the EW capability is still useful when in a closed-hatch fighting configuration, in which the monocular sight is less appropriate. Imagine being able to see EW signatures behind the next IV-line before the threat has LOS on your formation.
Filling an Intelligence Gap and Shortening the Intelligence Cycle
In today’s conventional U.S. military, there exists a significant delay of information from theater and strategic level assets to the tactical warfighter. Generally, the higher the echelon, the more capable and available the assets. The further down the ladder a unit, vehicle, or warfighter is, the further that information must be disseminated. SIGINT/EW sensors exist today in the defense arsenal, but are not in widespread, effective use by the average maneuver unit. The lack of knowledge—sometimes, downright ignorance—of such capabilities puts units at an unnecessary disadvantage. Think a rotational unit discussing camo-nets at the NTC, while giving no thought about its own electronic signature—reference Figure 1—the military can do better and should. From the perspective of the frontline warfighter, real-time sensor-to-display technology can effectively shrink the intelligence cycle from Step 2: Collection, to Step 5: Dissemination. Steps 3 and 4, Processing and Analysis respectively, are effectively negated. There would be no need for brigade or division-level assets to collect and process information, analyze data, produce products, and disseminate accurate, timely, and actionable intelligence to the lowest echelon. If the technology is in the hands of frontline warfighters, they could employ the power of SIGINT/EW sensors as easily as looking through their thermal sight or night-vision is now. In future 21st Century conflicts, such a capability may be a necessity.
An adaptation of five existing technologies—the IHADSS, DAGR, TEWS or C-ESM, JCR or JBC-P, and magnetometer and gimbal technology—can provide better situational awareness and understanding to the frontline warfighter through a real-time, intermediate-range, vehicle-mounted EW sensor; available via both 3-D helmet-mounted and 2-D vehicle-mounted displays. Such a technological adaptation put to use by frontline mounted warfighters would be extremely beneficial in the mobile close-fight, allowing formations to employ EW sensing technology to literally “see the unseen,” and get through the “last mile.” Gone are the days of camo-nets when an EW signature can be seen by simply turning one’s head.