General John E. Hyten, vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, shares his perspectives on electromagnetic support operations during a recent online discussion.
“We were missing critical expertise as we were moving into the future” General John E. Hyten, vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience of the Association of Old Crows’ inaugural Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Leadership Discussion on 6th January.
Gen. Hyten was reflecting on the Electronic Warfare (EW) challenge experienced by the US armed forces and Department of Defence (DOD) as their collective focus on counter-insurgency operations in the Afghan and Iraqi theatres shifted towards the revival of great power competition towards the end of last decade.
As head of the Joint Staff’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (EMSO) Cross Functional Team (CFT), Gen. Hyten is the most senior person in the DOD responsible for electromagnetic support operations. EW forms one dimension of EMSO. EMSO in turn forms part of the US DOD’s Information Advantage pillar of the US armed forces Joint Warfighting Concept. Alongside Information Advantage focusing on spectrum superiority, the pillars include all-domain command and control, contested logistics and joint fires.
Near Peer Rivals
Following the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC in 2001, and the subsequent US-led coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, US and allied forces enjoyed spectrum supremacy, and were able to manoeuvre in the spectrum without excessive interference from the ragtag of insurgent groups they encountered. Russia’s military interventions in the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars in 2014 and 2015 respectively underscored the importance of EW, particularly electronic attack, to Russia’s military doctrines. Similarly, other near-peer rivals like the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are pouring investment into their electronic and cyber warfare capabilities.
This raises the prospect that the radars and communications networks US and allied forces rely upon for Situational Awareness (SA) and Command and Control (C2) could be compromised by electronic attack. At the same time US forces must be able to degrade and destroy those electromagnetic capabilities rivals rely upon for SA and C2 through electromagnetic and kinetic manoeuvre.
Gen. Hyten argued that the revival of great power competition appeared remote back in 2011/2012 but “if you were a military guy, you could see it coming.” While the US DOD and the wider political community in Washington DC awoken to the need for US forces to win spectrum superiority and spectrum superiority, collectively known as 4S as illustrated by the Pentagon’s publication of its Electromagnetic Superiority Strategy in October 2021, Gen Hyten believes there is still work to be done: “I’d thought that we would be further along than we are now,” he told the discussion: “I thought the air force and the joint force would embrace it and move quickly. We were not moving nearly fast enough.”
The EMSO CFT is tasked with reforming how the DOD and US armed forces prepare for and execute spectrum operations. Gen. Hyten says that to this end progress is being made “in the joint world, service world and ultimately in the industry world.” He says the EMSO strategy rests on “maintaining the old” equipment while getting new capabilities into the force. As a whole Gen. Hyten believes the DOD is “organising better and we are equipping better” for EMSO but cautioned that “we have a lot of work to be before we get there.” The holy grail is to “win the electromagnetic fight right from the beginning.”
Intrinsic to this is ensuring that the capabilities needed for spectrum superiority can be developed fast enough, and are the best they can be: “We have to have capabilities, but capabilities which are superior to any other on the planet.”
Reflecting on the unlikelihood that US forces would perform future large-scale operations unilaterally, Gen. Hyten emphasised the importance of existing and emerging US EMSO capabilities seamlessly intermeshing with those of US allies. He emphasised that all allied capabilities brought to the fight must be capable of plugging into those of the US armed forces and vice versa.
At the same time, he cautioned against perceiving the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain; a subject of considerable debate in the global EW community in recent years: “Spectrum is not its own domain,” Gen. Hyten stated, arguing that one cannot fight in a single domain and hope to win on the battlefield. Instead, “spectrum is the first critical element in being successful in all domain operations.”