Get Ready For The Spectrum Melee

By Douglas Wahl and Tim McGeehan

A New Era

In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi, the father of modern radio, was demonstrating an improved version of his device for wireless telegraphy at the Royal Institution in London. He had planned to transmit a message in Morse code from 300 miles away in Cornwall to the lecture hall in London, where it would be received and deciphered by an associate in front of the waiting audience. As the demonstration commenced the machine began receiving a signal. It repeatedly spelled the word “rats” before beginning a message that scandalously mocked Marconi: “there was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily…”1 The press soon reported that someone had made a “deliberate and cowardly attempt to wreck the experiment.”2

This event was sensational because this version of Marconi’s wireless had been advertised as being specially tuned and therefore secure from outside interception or interference. The ‘scientific hooligan’ behind the interference was Nevil Maskelyne, a local magician and wireless competitor, who sought to demonstrate that the radio signals were neither as private nor as secure as Marconi had claimed.3

Although technology has progressed significantly over the last 100-plus years, this episode still has serious ramifications today, as it could be considered the first episode of communications electronic attack (EA) or spoofing. Maskelyne, who had set up his own transmitter nearby, seized control of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and disrupted Marconi’s communications signal by overpowering it and injecting his own signal in its place, thereby delivering the new message to the intended receiver. Maskelyne’s 1903 stunt had also heralded a new era in warfare, where the EMS itself could and would be a contested battleground. Today, both non-state actors and adversary nations seek to use EA to deny the use of the EMS, which has become critical to both our daily lives and military operations. Fortunately, disruptive technologies are emerging to fill the urgent need to sense, characterize, and exploit the EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries.

Our Reliance

As U.S. forces continue to become more technologically advanced, we continue to become more reliant on access to the EMS. Communications, sensor feeds, and command, control, and intelligence data all flow through the EMS and we have become increasingly addicted to the bandwidth available in permissive environments, with applications ranging from routine radio traffic to fire control radars. This demand will only increase.

Now, momentum is building in the drive to decouple sensors from shooters, further increasing reliance and demand on assured access to the EMS. The Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability distributes the AEGIS shipboard fire control data across diverse networks of remote sensors. This provides the AEGIS combat system the means to achieve independent engagement of over-the-horizon (OTH) targets with the Standard Missile (SM-6).4 In the future, engagement information will be passively provided to AEGIS from other platforms networked into NIFA-CA. Surface picket ships, aircraft like the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and future Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will all be threads in the Navy’s kill web. The first generation of NIFC-CA is already here; the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT Carrier Strike Group completed its deployment as the first NIFC-CA enabled strike group in 2015.5

Net-Enabled Weapons (NEW), like the Tactical Tomahawk that can be launched at a target and then directed inflight to a new, different target, are likewise EMS dependent.6 Future NEW weapons systems will no longer be confined to a set system of dedicated sensors, but will instead draw on the many sensors available in kill webs. These weapons will include swarms of unmanned platforms and loitering munitions that can circle overhead until being directed into a target. Similarly, our existing Tactical Data Links (Link 4A, Link 11, and Link 16) and NIFC-CA are spectrum dependent; they must be able to network, communicate, and exchange data. Our adversaries know this too and are investing in capabilities that which specifically target our access to the EMS itself as part of their Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies.

In general, the A2/AD model is based on the tenants of both Clausewitz and Mahan in that it is focused on controlling the battlespace and attrition of the adversary’s forces. To counter this the surface Navy continues to develop its “distributed lethality” concept. Distributed lethality explores how dispersing forces could enhance warfighting by “countering A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness” and once found, exploit it, and disable or destroy the adversary’s forces.7 Dispersion creates more room to maneuver, and “strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously.”8 However, distributed lethality will exacerbate the burden on the EMS as the distributed forces must be able to communicate and coordinate in order to mass effects when and where required.

That said, distributed lethality has a role to play in denying the EMS to our adversaries. Sun Tzu placed high value on spies and defeating adversaries before the battle. Distributed forces can test and stimulate adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to determine their scope and breadth in preparation for follow-on operations. Mapping the spectral dependencies of adversary systems before conflict is key to configuring our kill web, disrupting our adversary’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and breaking their kill chains before weapons are launched.

Spectrum control is not a “future” issue; it is an urgent issue that has been long neglected and must be addressed now – as observed in Russia’s operations in Ukraine. In 2015, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work recently summarized the situation stating “Ukrainian commanders reported to us that, within minutes of coming up on the radio net, they were targeted by concentrated artillery strikes…  They [Russian backed separatists] jam GPS signals, causing Ukrainian UAVs to drop out of the sky. And they jam proximity fuses on artillery shells, turning them into duds.”9  Likewise in the recent past, Iran claimed to have hacked into the mission-control system of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 SENTINEL UAV flying near their Afghan border, taken control of it, and successfully landed it in Iran.10 Tehran claimed that they jammed the UAV’s communications and when it switched to autopilot they spoofed its GPS system with false coordinates, fooling it into thinking it was close to home and landing in Iran.11 Regardless of the veracity of Iran’s version of this story, it illustrates the mindset of our adversaries. We need to ensure that the multiple entry points and data links required to fully realize concepts like “distributed lethality” don’t turn them instead into “distributed vulnerability.” Ukraine is a cautionary tale of real-world vulnerability and the A2/AD investments of potential adversaries signal intent for more of the same. As part of its mandate to ensure All Domain Access, the U.S. Navy must be able to sense, characterize, and exploit a contested EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries – we need to own the spectrum.12

The Technology

Real-Time Spectrum Operations (RTSO) is a new and highly automated capability theorized to provide warfighters the ability to understand and drive their forces’ use of EMS resources. RTSO predictions are based on three mainstays: physics algorithms, sensor characteristics, and numerical weather predictions (NWP). All three must work together for RTSO to transition from theory to reality:

Sense. We need sensors distributed throughout the battlespace to constantly measure the environment and accordingly adjust our weapon systems, continuously tailoring their settings to optimize performance. The “environment” includes both the ambient EM signals and the physical environment through which they propagate. As a forward deployed service, the Navy often operates in data-sparse regions, thus every platform, manned and unmanned, must be a sensor. We need environmental and ES sensors on all of our ships and aircraft from autonomous surface vehicles to UAVs and from logistics ships to strike fighters. All this data has to be collected, processed, and most importantly sent back to our modeling and fusion centers to provide information for optimizing future operations.

Massive amounts of environmental data can also be gathered “through the sensor,” in addition to the actual desired signal.13 This is analogous to the “by-catch” of commercial fishing, where additional marine species are caught in addition to the type of fish targeted by the fisherman. The bycatch is often discarded at sea, resulting in a wasted resource. The same happens during the processing of sensor data, where the extraneous signals are removed. However, this resource can be not only salvaged but used to provide a new capability. For example, Doppler radar weather data can be extracted from SPS-48 air search radars of our big-deck aviation platforms as well as from the SPY-1 radar of the AEGIS weapon system. With the multitude of sensors available there are many untapped sources of environmental data.

We also need to take advantage of commercial off the shelf (COTS) data collection systems, such as the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) program that has been adopted by over 40 commercial airlines.14 AMDAR uses existing aircraft sensors, processing systems, and communication networks to collect, process, format, and transmit meteorological data to ground stations where it is relayed to National Meteorological and Hydrological Services to be processed, quality controlled, and transmitted on the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Telecommunications System. The Navy could incorporate a similar system into its platforms to collect and transmit data on both the EMS and physical environment.

Characterize. Once we have the environmental data in hand, we can use it to characterize the environment. In the EMS this includes mapping the frequencies in use by all actors and inferring their operations and intent. For the physical environment it includes incorporating collected data into our NWPs to forecast the future physical environment itself, which can then be fed into the EMS analysis to predict how sensors and receivers will respond to new conditions. To do this effectively we must invest in supercomputing and shared processing. In the future, an advanced version of Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) and the Navy’s Tactical Cloud may provide the ability to have a supercomputer on each of our large deck surface platforms, enabling this capability even when reach back data-links are degraded or denied.15

SAN DIEGO (Nov. 19, 2013) Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Anthony Pisciotto, right, familiarizes Information Systems Technician Seaman Cameron Treanor with the Consolidated Afloat Ships Network Enterprise Services (CANES) system in the Local Area Network (LAN) Equipment Room aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69).  (U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt)

Exploit. Once we understand the environment, we must exploit it by adapting our tactics. We need to “seize spectral high ground” and apply maneuver warfare principles to the spectrum to assure our bandwidth. Understanding the environment better than our adversaries will allow us to evaluate trade-offs and turn Battlespace Awareness into Information Warfare. Only this will allow our forces to have the operational advantage and overmatch our adversaries by fully integrating the Navy’s information functions, capabilities, and resources to optimize decision-making and maximize warfighting effects.

Deny. Finally, we need to deny the spectrum to our adversaries by further developing systems such as the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) and delivering the Next Generation Jammer. We must expand the HAVE QUICK radio system with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)16 to provide anti-jam, frequency hopping secure communications that use ultra-high frequency (UHF) and require smaller antennas.

We must also deny our spectral emissions to our adversaries. A good rule of thumb is that if your radar can range 100 nautical miles, the adversary can detect it at least to 200 nautical miles. With an eye toward preventing unwanted detection, we need to revisit how we communicate. With the widespread use of direction finding in World War II, radio silence was a normal operating procedure and information was passed between ships using semaphore. Today, Laser Communication Relay Systems exist that are both extremely secure and have high data rates. As a bonus, these systems use less energy and when paired with satellites, these line-of-sight systems have unlimited potential.

Risks, Barriers, and Integration

There are multiple risks and barriers to integrating these technologies. From the operational aspect, these technologies have to interface with currently fielded systems. Spectrum management and deconfliction are already ostensibly done through Operational Tasking Communications (OPTASK COMMS) and the Afloat Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Program (AESOP), but we still routinely have electromagnetic interference (EMI) between our systems. The commander of the Air Force’s Space Command said that in the first 11 months of 2015 there were over 261 cases of satellite downlink jamming. When asked how many of these incidents were caused by actual adversaries, he responded “I really don’t know. My guess is zero,” and that the real cause was “almost always self-jamming.”17 In a way, this suggests that the problem might be as much cultural as it is technical. A military workforce that has grown up in the age of unlimited and uncontested bandwidth is less aware of their EMS operations, filling (and over-filling) all available bandwidth with little discipline. This nonchalance will be difficult to overcome, but the fielding of new high-end capabilities must be accompanied by a change in mindset in order to realize maximum benefit.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Aug. 19, 2015) The U.S. Navy’s fourth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, encapsulated in a 5-meter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V booster inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-41. (Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance/Released)

EMI is not confined to just our own systems. Used indiscriminately, military radar systems may be strong enough to interfere with wireless systems, air traffic control radars, and cellphone systems. In the late 1980s, a Dutch naval radar caused the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system of a natural gas pipeline near the naval port of Den Helder to open and close a valve, ultimately leading to an explosion.18 Despite a crowded spectrum at home, the U.S. government continues to sell off bandwidth and civil users continue to encroach upon what remains. The net effect is an increasing limitation on the military’s ability to effectively train stateside.

Another barrier to progress in the acquisition and integration of new systems is the U.S. military’s acquisition system itself. It is too slow and vulnerable to espionage and theft. In military acquisitions the mantra is that “we don’t fight the enemy, we fight the budget,” which is often shaped more by political considerations than by the needs of the services. In 2016, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley testified that Navy needs more authority to spend on experimentation and prototyping (not necessarily programs of record), because “the pace of technology is outpacing” the services’ ability to work their way through the “long and lengthy process” of fielding weapons systems.19

In terms of security, plans to assure access to the EMS should begin before these systems are even fielded. Espionage and theft are rampant from cleared defense contractors, evidenced by the striking similarity of ‘new’ adversary platforms to our own. However, the threat even extends to university and research labs. Today’s high-tech research becomes tomorrow’s classified projects and programs; we need to ensure these capabilities are protected throughout their entire development as an early compromise of one of these technologies gives our adversaries years to either improve upon it or develop a counter.


As we wage the battle of Washington, we need to prioritize investment in the capabilities described above. Roadmaps and plans are aspirational without resources and in this constrained fiscal environment there are many promising programs that will fall “below the cut line” and not be funded. However, capabilities that will enable us to own the spectrum when and where required are just as important, if not more important, than any particular ship or handful of strike fighters. At the cost of $100-plus million dollars per unit, would one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter be missed if the Navy was to reallocate this funding towards a RTSO program? If we lose the battle for the spectrum, many platforms like these will be seriously impaired and vulnerable, if not completely blind, deaf, and dumb and thus defenseless.

Luckily, there have been recent admissions from senior Department of Defense leadership that these types of capabilities are critical as we move forward. This support may help identify funding for rapid transition or similar acquisition “fast track” opportunities to get these technologies to the Fleet quickly. However, the true level of commitment will be clear in the budget.


The spectrum is a battleground whose control is absolutely fundamental to warfare in the information age. The U.S. military must seize upon emerging technologies that will enable it to maintain superiority in this congested and contested environment. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, “Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the electromagnetic terrain, know the weather; your victory will then be total.”  The spectrum is no longer an “enabler” to military operations; it is the battlefield.

Douglas T. Wahl is the METOC Pillar Lead and a Systems Engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington.  

The ideas presented are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. Lulz, Dot-dash-diss: The gentleman hacker’s 1903, New Scientist,

2. Staff Writer, Further Developments in Wireless Telegraphy, The Evening Telegram, June 29, 1903,,6605289&hl=en

3. Staff Writer, Interesting Marconigrams, Evening Post, August 15, 1903,

4. Jeffrey H. McConnell, (14 NOV 2013) Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air Capability‐Based System of Systems Engineering, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division,

5. Sam LaGrone, (5 March 2015), “Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group to Depart for Middle East on Monday in First NIFC-CA Deployment”, ; Final Ship of Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group Returns Home, 14 December 2015,

6. Managing the Net-Enabled Weapons Kill Chain Testing in a Live-Virtual-Constructive Environment, Joint Command and Control for Net-Enabled Weapons (JC2NEW), Joint Test, Alexandria, VA, 22311.

7. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016

8. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016

9. Bob Work,  Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech at CNAS Defense Forum, December 14, 2015

10. David Axe, Nah, Iran Probably Didn’t Hack the CIA;s Stealth Drone, Wired,

11. Adam Rawnsley, Iran’s Alleged Drone Hack: Tough but Possible, Wired,

12. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower:  Forward, Engaged, Ready, March 2015.

13. Tim Gallaudet, Charting the ‘Invisible Terrain’ Proceedings, July 2015.


15. The Navy Wants a Tactical Cloud,

16. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This new DARPA chip could give U.S. a leg up in electronic warfare”, 12 January 2016, The Washington Post.

17. Syndey Freedberg, U.S. Jammed Own Satellites 261 Times; What if Enemy Did?, Breaking Defense, December 02, 2015,

18. IBID Zetter

19. John Grady, Sean Stackley Asks Congress for More Department of Navy Flexibility in Acquisition, 7 January 2016, USNI News,

Featured Image: ARABIAN SEA (June 11, 2011) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Stephen Sittner, from Denver, identifies and tracks air contacts in the Combat Direction Center of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd/Released)

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