NATO’s electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, which atrophied after the Cold War due to defense budget cuts, are starting to rebound but will take years to fully recover, an alliance official said Nov. 30.
NATO members have begun buying new EW systems, such as those built into the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, but the equipment will not be fielded overnight. In the meantime, the alliance hopes to make significant strides by increasing joint training with existing systems, said Dutch Air Commodore Madelein Spit, assistant commander of the NATO Joint Air Power Competence Center, based in Germany.
“Why don’t we get out there and use the stuff that we have today and not wait for all the goodies we’re going to get tomorrow?” said Spit, who spoke at an Association of Old Crows conference in Washington, D.C. “We [can] go and train now.”
EW will be a major part of Joint Project Optic Windmill (JPOW) 2017, an integrated air and missile defense exercise that Spit is organizing. Slated for mid-June, the exercise will be both physical and virtual and include an air and missile defense unit in the Netherlands, Spanish ships, and links to sites in Colorado Springs, Colo., and across Europe. About 10 nations and two NATO agencies are expected to participate.
“What I want is that we make life difficult for these guys by putting in red forces with a little more capabilities,” including EW, Spit said. “We used to have those teams and they were really good. They would mimic a peer or near-peer adversary. Halfway in the exercise, your comms would go out and your scope would go black.”
NATO’s EW capabilities used to be “top notch” but became a low priority after the Soviet Union fell, Spit said. Development, procurement and expertise all dwindled. While overseeing F-16 acquisition for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Spit was tasked with killing the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), an air-launched missile designed to suppress or destroy surface radar.
“We’re a bit challenged right now because the quality and quantity have really gone down for the last 20 years,” she said.
But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 served as a “major wakeup call” for NATO, prompting alliance members to commit to increasing their defense budgets to 2 percent of their gross domestic product, Spit explained. The alliance has placed EW “very high on the list” of capabilities it wants to improve. Adversaries today use jammers that “target us at anything that we were really good at,” such as satellite-based navigation, satellite communications and synthetic aperture radar.