Two electronic warfare (EW) advocates have urged the Department of Defense to pay more attention to EW to ensure the U.S. military keeps its edge in that area.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general and former EW officer who sits on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said Oct. 11 that the U.S. military’s EW capabilities have atrophied since the 1990s while China and Russia have improved theirs. He attributed the decline partly to a lack of high-level advocacy.

An E/A-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft in the foreground shadowed by a F/A-18 Super Hornet. Photo by Boeing.
An E/A-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft in the foreground shadowed by a F/A-18 Super Hornet. Photo by Boeing.

“We used to have two-star generals in the Pentagon that used to oversee electronic warfare,” Bacon said at the Brookings Institution. “We don’t have that today. We do have a one-star at [U.S. Strategic Command] that does the joint [electromagnetic spectrum operations], and I’m pleased that that’s been put in place. But if you look in the Joint Staff, it’s very diffused who’s in charge of electronic warfare. I think there should be a single belly button that is an advocate on the Joint Staff as well.”

Bacon also urged DoD to revise its doctrine to describe the electromagnetic spectrum as a separate “physical domain” in which the military seeks to achieve superiority in battle.

“If you don’t talk like that, you’re not even on first base,” he said. “There’s a reluctance in DoD to call it that because they think that leads to more spending in this area and they don’t want to put more money there.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), a HASC member and co-chair of the congressional Electronic Warfare Working Group, said EW is plagued by “feast or famine” budgeting, and that new EW equipment takes too long to develop and field.

“If we’re in a war, if we’re fighting, a lot goes into electronic warfare,” Larsen told the Brookings audience. “If the operational tempo goes down and we’re not fighting as much, then not as much investment goes into electronic warfare. What we need to do is have a more consistent budget commitment to EW across the services. That means training. That means developing leaders. That means research with our academic institutions and our federally funded research and development centers.”

Larsen said the Pentagon’s EW Executive Committee is trying to address such matters. DoD formed the panel in 2015 in response to a Defense Science Board study that found that DoD had “lost focus” on EW, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote in a memo (Defense Daily, April 10, 2015).

Concerns about EW capabilities, including systems that jam enemy communications and radar, have lingered for many years. In 2012, for instance, the Government Accountability Office reported that some airborne electronic attack systems were plagued by development and production problems and duplication across the services. Years earlier, U.S. Strategic Command identified almost three dozen EW-related capability gaps, including a lack of leadership across DoD, the GAO said.