Aviation electronic warfare: Influencing the battlefield behind the scenes

Story by Sgt. Duncan Brennan, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade

From left to right, Sgt. Steve McDaniel and Sgt. 1st Class John Wink, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade electronic warfare noncommissioned officers and Staff Sgt. Mariah Parks, 101st CAB intel analyst, stand in front of the brigade colors as the electronic warfare team. (Photo by Sgt. Duncan Brennan, 10st Combat Aviation Brigade)

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — At first glance, Army electronic warfare may sound like a bunch of Soldiers huddled around computers defeating hackers, but the truth is closer to the front lines and closer to science fiction than you may believe.

In the Army, the Soldiers who perform electronic warfare duties are often influencing the battlefield from behind the scenes by interrupting enemy communication and defeating radio-detonated improvised explosive devices.

“Electronic warfare is manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum for our benefit,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Wink, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade’s electronic warfare noncommissioned officer in charge. “We request the manipulation of frequencies such as wireless entry, radio and TV waves to gain an advantage in battle.”

“The textbook answer is, ‘Electronic warfare is defined as military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy,’” said Staff Sgt. Frank Dill, 506th Infantry Regiment’s electronic warfare noncommissioned officer in charge.

The electromagnetic spectrum includes wireless signals, radio and TV, but it also includes lasers, microwaves and radar.

The technology and expertise that allow the Army to be more successful on the battlefield just recently developed, said Dill. Electronic warfare was envisioned as an Army occupation in 2007 and became an actual job in 2010.

The devices that electronic warfare specialists have at their disposal are often classified, but a few were showcased in the Business Insider. Among them are some devices that could be at home in any science-fiction movie.

The “heat ray,” designed to be used as a non-lethal, crowd-dispersion tool and the “phasr,” a laser system introduced by the Air Force to temporarily blind an enemy are two devices which have recently been added to the electronic warfare arsenal.

The most commonly used devices are those that interfere with communications, most notably the counter radio-controlled IED electronic warfare systems, which interfere with the enemy’s ability to employ and detonate radio-controlled IEDs, said Wink.

In the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, the electronic warfare mission must be tailored to meet the needs of aviation.

“I am implementing a proactive system of employing electronic warfare assets on aircraft to assist the brigades on the ground,” said Wink. “I’m also responsible for educating ground commanders about the employment and requesting of EW assets on the battlefield.”

Despite the Army’s movement toward a more technologically capable force, electronic warfare Soldiers still encounter resistance to their mission.

“Infantry guys have weapons that have a demonstrable effect on the target,” said Staff Sgt. Mariah Parks, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 101st CAB intelligence analyst. “Electronic warfare does not have an effect that can be immediately seen unless we employ lethal means. Electronic warfare is a preventive specialty, much like preventive medicine. Instead of attempting to keep Soldiers from getting sick, we attempt to keep Soldiers from getting blown up by enemy IEDs and keeping the enemy from being able to coordinate complex attacks.”

Because of their inability to show immediate, measurable results, like an enemy emplacement being blown up, it is difficult for some to see nothing happening as a measure of success.

“We have to wait for feedback from communications and intel sections that our effects have been observed,” said Wink. “A successful mission for us can sometimes be measured by the fact (that) nothing bad happens on someone else’s mission.”

Electronic warfare Soldiers take the technology and go one step further by coming up with the basis for how the Army will bring age-old strategies of harrying enemies into the 21st century.

“We will be able to shape future training and employment of electronic warfare assets for a combat aviation brigade by analyzing how we employ electronic warfare assets during this (upcoming) deployment,” said Wink. “We will be ensuring electronic warfare training gets integrated into all levels of training. Researching potential EW threats and developing ways to mitigate electromagnetic threats are an essential part of electronic warfare’s mission success.”

Through education, integration and training, the electronic warfare section of the 101st CAB seeks to be at the forefront of developing the electronic warfare mission for the Army.

“I will be working to better integrate electronic warfare operations into the intelligence operations within the Destiny Brigade, and setting the example for electronic warfare integration for our fellow brigades in the 101st Airborne Division,” said Parks.

At the end of the day, the Soldiers executing the electronic warfare mission are taking new technologies and employing them to give front-line forces new tools and techniques to ensure mission success.