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Airpower after Ukraine

August 30, 2022

The role of electronic warfare, cyber, and space capabilities in the air littoral

By Zachary Kallenborn

Air Force Colonel Gene Cirillo once said, “the US Army will never control the ground under the sky, if the US Air Force does not control the sky over the ground.” The Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that such control may no longer be possible. Months into the conflict, both sides continue to throw drones, loitering munitions (munitions that loiter around a target area then strike), and missiles into the sky to no avail. This contest between offensive weapons and countermeasures has given rise to a new focus on the air littoral, the airspace between ground forces and high-altitude fighters and bombers. The air littoral has been critical in the war as a space for conducting strikes, collecting intelligence to guide artillery strikes, and collecting and disseminating propaganda.

In contesting and realizing the larger effects of the air littoral, information warfare plays a critical role through attacking and defending command-and-control links, communications channels, the computers controlling air-littoral weapons, and the space-based services the weapons depend upon. According to the Congressional Research Service, “information warfare” has no official definition, but it is essentially “the use and management of information to pursue competitive advantage, including offensive and defensive operations.” For the air-littoral fight, electronic, cyber, and space warfare are critical to successful information operations. A competitor that is able to leverage electronic warfare, cyber, and space will gain an advantage in littoral airspace.

Countermeasures in the air littoral

Electronic warfare (EW): EW—which intercepts, jams, or disrupts signals through use of the electromagnetic spectrum or directed energy—is commonly used to target drones and, to an extent, loitering munitions. Jammers, which comprise 72 percent of counter-drone systems, sever the link between the drone and the operator or the global positioning system (GPS) signals that the drone relies on for navigation. Numerous other countermeasures fall under the broad definition of information warfare, including spoofing and dazzling, as well as employing lasers and high-powered microwaves. Microwave weapons like the US Air Force’s THOR hold particular promise: Aside from being low cost-per-shot, they also have the ability to hit many targets at once by emitting microwave radiation over a wide area. This capability should make them effective at countering future drone swarms. Likewise, Russia claims to have fielded a new laser weapon for downing drones, which offers the same low cost-per-shot ability. Although it is far from clear that jamming missiles is likely to have a big effect, missiles depend on a sensor-shooter relationship, which is vulnerable to jamming. Decoys could deceive those sensors, jammers might sever communication links between sensors and shooters, and artificial intelligence (AI)-created deepfakes could encourage missiles to fire on empty fields.

Cyberattacks: Drones and loitering munitions are essentially flying computers, thus they are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Such attacks could break links from controller and platform, code might be altered to cause screwups, or nefarious code could be injected to cause friendly drones to blow up friendly units or allow an adversary to control the drone entirely. The fact that Ukraine and Russia employ commercial drones make such attacks easier to implement because both sides can acquire their own versions of the commercial drone and analyze the code in flight controllers, motor controllers, and other critical systems for weaknesses. Moreover, cyberattacks on missiles are difficult but not impossible to achieve. Such attacks can target missile designs, alter software and hardware, or damage command-and-control systems.

Of course, whether (and how) cyberattacks can be launched on drones and loitering munitions during an active war is an open question. Finding an exploitable vulnerability in highly complex, well-guarded weapons code can be time-consuming; fifth-generation aircraft can have millions of lines of code. Likewise, launching an attack requires various support activities, such as identifying and developing mechanisms to exploit vulnerabilities, building specialized malware, and providing operational management and command and control during the attack. All this incurs opportunity costs: If an adversary’s systems can be manipulated, disrupted, or just blown up, why bother with cyberattacks when conventional attacks can be executed much faster? Plus, what if defenders have strong allies helping them to guard cyberspace?

Space warfare: Satellites provide air-littoral weapons with position, navigation, and timing support, as well as longer-range command and control. Drones and loitering munitions often depend on GPS coordinates for navigation and strike. Jamming GPS signals could prevent accurate targeting, while spoofing GPS signals might cause the weapons to blow up in an empty field. A clever adversary could spoof a GPS signal so that a friendly military base is at a target location’s GPS coordinates. Missiles’ GPS links could also be spoofed or jammed, but doing so is tough. Missiles also have other, non-GPS-based guidance systems, thus the end result is mostly degrading accuracy—relevant to precise, single strikes, but not necessarily applicable to hitting large targets such as airfields or concentrated forces. More broadly, attacks on satellite systems providing communication and navigation links could inhibit air-littoral munitions over a broad area along with any other space-dependent systems.

Drone developments in response

Drone and loitering-munitions technology is evolving, too, shifting—but not eliminating—information vulnerabilities. Drones are becoming increasingly autonomous. The TB2, for example, can take off, cruise, and land without human control. Likewise, Russia is seemingly using the Lancet-3 loitering munition in Ukraine, which is reportedly capable of autonomous target selection and engagement. If these systems do not require human input or GPS, then jammers are far less effective. Still, jammers are not necessarily irrelevant: new, jammable communications might be needed as drones integrate into larger swarms. Likewise, increased autonomy could create new information vulnerabilities: AI systems can be tricked, AI training data poisoned, and more complex computer systems mean more opportunities to cause harm and potentially new points of entry for a cyberattack (a larger digital “attack surface”). Plus, if autonomous features in the weapon system rely on GPS signals, the system is more vulnerable to GPS jamming or spoofing, as well as to cyber or physical attacks on GPS infrastructures.

The evolution of drones, loitering munitions, and countermeasures will affect the tactics and strategies needed to contest enemies in the air littoral. Jammers are often small, handheld devices, allowing them to be shared and used broadly by even dismounted infantry in austere terrain. In contrast, microwaves and laser weapons are often relatively big, bulky, and vehicle-mounted. Finding, fixing, and engaging such a vehicle is probably much easier than finding, fixing, and engaging a large number of small, dispersed soldiers. Plus, the vehicles are likely much more expensive than a handheld system; thus there will most likely be fewer of them, allowing the systems to be more readily tracked and either avoided or defeated. This dimension plays into how to fight in the air littoral: Should countermeasures be targeted and destroyed, or should countermeasures be monitored and avoided?

Readying the force

The biggest takeaway for the United States and allied nations is the need to integrate information warfare, air-littoral capabilities, and capabilities on both sides of the littoral (ground and air; or surface and air) to achieve the desired effects. Achieving this requires information sharing; mutual understanding about what each component can and cannot do; as well as established processes or methods for integration, training, and exercises to practice, and doctrine to formalize best practices and concepts. Formal efforts, such as a new NATO Centre of Excellence on the air littoral could explore these issues in greater detail. The United States and its allies should also launch a formal effort, such as a congressional commission, on information warfare. Such a commission could look broadly across the military services and the broad national community to identify and plug information warfare capability, organizational, and policy gaps. For example, the commission could identify opportunities to create new organizations bringing together the elements of information warfare or make big new investments in electronic warfare. New thought is needed to succeed in a new area of competition.


Zachary Kallenborn is a Policy Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, a Research Affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), an officially proclaimed US Army “Mad Scientist,” and a national security consultant.

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Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Image: Staff Sgt. Jermaine Edmunds, an electronic warfare technician with 169th Maintenance Squadron’s Electronic Warfare shop at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., conducts pre-setup for a 120-day Preventative Maintenance Inspection on an ALQ-184 electronic countermeasure pod, Jan. 6, 2012. PMI’s are conducted every 120 and a major inspection at 320 days, where a specific series of tests are performed on various components at pre-set frequencies, ensuring the ECM pod is receiving and correctly responding to threat signals. Electronic warfare provides safety to our pilots and F-16’s in combat and training missions by providing total structural and electronic maintenance and repairs to the ALQ-184 ECM pod. The ALQ-184 is equipped with forward and aft antennas, which manipulates radiofrequency signals received and sends back false information, making it difficult for the enemy to lock a signal on our jets.