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Thwarting the threat

Artist rendering of an electronic warfare attack scenario in a fifth-generation fighter jet.
Electronic warfare legacy 60 years in the making
Becoming known as the world leader in electronic warfare (EW) did not happen overnight for BAE Systems. For more than 60 years, the company’s technology has flown on the U.S. military’s most-prominent platforms, and our engineers continue to develop the most-advanced EW capabilities to combat the threats of today and tomorrow.

Since the beginning of World War II, EW has played a critical role in protecting warfighters. The technology was first introduced in the form of radar communications — paving the way for the development of radar defense and surveillance technology in the 1950s.

A few years later, EW’s importance was cemented in history when the United States used the U-2 to breach the U.S.S.R.’s “Iron Curtain,” providing intelligence on the Soviet Union. The U-2’s missions then became threatened by surface-to-air missiles. With this emerging threat, our legacy company,  Sanders Associates, designed and fielded an electronic countermeasure system for the platform in 1963.

Fast forward 50 years, and we continue to develop EW systems to protect the nation’s most-prominent aircraft, including the B-2, CH-47, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-22, F-35, C-130J, U-2 and UH-60, as well as a number of classified platforms. In 2016, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recognized the need for EW, stating in his 2017 U.S. defense budget preview that the capability would be vital to addressing the five challenges of Russian aggression in Europe, the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region, North Korea, Iran and terrorism.

Despite its long history and market size, EW technology and how it works still remains a mystery to many in the industry. Allan McQuarrie, director of Engineering, explains that the technology centers on the electromagnetic spectrum.

“The term ‘electromagnetic spectrum’ may sound complicated, but the spectrum is something we see and use in our everyday lives,” said McQuarrie. “It is composed of energy waves of various lengths. Radio waves are longer, moving to microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and, finally, shorter gamma rays.”

EW systems use the electromagnetic spectrum in three capability areas — electronic support, electronic attack and electronic protection — to create an advantage against an enemy.

“When a pilot is in the field, electronic support enables him to detect, identify and locate electromagnetic energy that is emitted from a threat,” said McQuarrie. “Electronic attack or jamming then directs energy toward those threats to neutralize their effect, thus protecting the aircraft. Electronic protection is a little unique — it protects personnel, facilities or equipment from a disruption or electronic attack of combat capabilities.”

Although predominantly found on aircraft, EW can be applicable to all domains, including air, sea, ground and space. It is a constantly evolving technology area, with our company at the forefront of innovation.

“Over the years, we have made more than $3 billion in EW technology investments,” said McQuarrie. “The goal is always to increase the survivability of the platform and its mission effectiveness.”

Although there are several ways the company is investing in this technology, adaptive, multi-spectral and net-centric EW are critically important to future success.

“Currently, electronic warfare systems are best at detecting and categorizing known threats,” said McQuarrie. “Systems with adaptive EW capabilities will be able to characterize and jam unknown threats at first encounter. Threats are changing at a faster pace than ever before, and adaptive EW beats the learning curve.”

Adaptive EW advancements will be necessary to protect traditional platforms and aircrews in the field. However, there are often multiple aircraft or platforms working together to defeat the adversary — making net-centric EW capabilities crucial to mission success.

“Net-centric EW will allow systems to share known or learned information and workload to other systems in the battlespace,” said McQuarrie. “Multi-spectral EW enables systems to capture the most-detailed threat intelligence for timely and precise threat response by expanding the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum. These three capabilities working in concert with each other is the way of the future in EW.”

Advancements in these areas will pave the way for us to continue our legacy of developing next-generation EW systems for U.S. and allied warfighters.

Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Pulse Magazine.