What is Electronic Warfare?

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Editorial Team - everything RF

Jun 27, 2020


Using electromagnetic spectrum to attack or defend against an opposing group in known as Electronic Warfare (EW). It is different from conventional warfare that has been taking place for decades. 

The Military uses Electronic Warfare to exploit an enemy’s electromagnetic emissions – they can block or jam communication or spectrum which can disrupt communications and or navigation (GPS). They can also intercept and decode communications to gain intelligence on the intentions of an enemy. Electronic Warfare is usually silent and invisible but it can cause significant damage to the opponent. Loss or disruption in communication can cause havoc to any military with the biggest outcome being an inability to coordinate with the other sections of the military. Electronic Warfare can take place over land, sea and in air as every instrument and machine has electronics and communicates using EM waves.

EW has become an important part of any country’s defense planning because of the increasing reliance on EM Waves. In this age of Information Technology, almost every process requires some kind of wireless communication and having a robust electronic warfare capability is a must. 

Electronic Warfare utilizes various methods and technologies based on Infrared, Radio Frequency, Electromagnetic Deception, Radio and GNSS Jamming, Anti-Jamming and Deception, Electronic Masking, Reconnaissance and Intelligence, Eavesdropping, Electronic Reprogramming, Emission Control, etc.

An example of Electric Warfare in a real world situation would be the alleged Israeli attack on a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007. It was called Operation Outside the Box and it used EW systems to interfere with Syrian air defenses while Israeli military jets destroyed their target and returned without being detected. Reports have suggested that the Israelis disabled Syria’s entire air defense systems such as radars, anti-aircraft guns, etc. while conducting the operation.

Electronic Warfare can be divided into three major categories:

  1. Electronic Attack
  2. Electronic Defence
  3. Electronic Self Protection

Their names are self explanatory. However, we will go in detail how they work and what are the ways in which they are carried out.

Electronic Attack

This is the capability of a military to launch attacks on the opponent to disrupt, deny, destroy or deceive their electronics infrastructure. It can be carried out by jamming the opponent’s communication channels using specialized aircrafts such as Germany Air Force’s EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack aircraft and F/A-18 Super Hornets. The US Navy has a separate Next-Gen Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) program to keep it up-to-date in the Electronic Warfare domain.

EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft

Though most forms of Electronic Warfare refer to disruption or interception of electromagnetic signals, there are some formats like Electromagnetic Pulses (EMP), that are slightly different. They work in a way very similar to that of conventional explosives, but instead of an explosion of heat and fire EMP gives out a burst of electromagnetic energy. This sudden burst of very high-power electromagnetic energy can disrupt and permanently damage electronic components in its vicinity. Its effect can be compared to the effect solar flares have on our satellites. High-power EMPs can damage physical objects including humans.

Electronic Defence

This is the capability of a military to defend its facilities, personnel, radars and communication channels from an enemy’s electronic attacks. As mentioned earlier, electronic attacks can have devastating effects on the functioning of the military. This marks another important category of Electronic Warfare because a successful electronic attack from the opponent can make facilities and personnel highly vulnerable.

Spread spectrum technologies are a widely used method of Electronic Defence. Other examples of Electronic Defence are the use of restricted frequency, stealth technology, and Emission Control.

Electronic Self Protection

Electronic Self Protection can be considered to be similar to electronic defense. It basically consists of countermeasures to protect aircrafts from enemy weapons fire. This can include protection from IR (Infrared) Missiles using Flares. During wartime, military aircrafts and ships are one of the prime targets with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles being used often. It is important for militaries to protect their assets and are continuously upgrading their assets to thwart any attack on their ships and aircrafts.

Aircraft Deploying Flares to Deceive IR Missiles

The history of Electronic Warfare takes us back to the end of World War II. It was at the time when countries started to develop and improve their Electronic Warfare capabilities. This was also the time when RF communication started gaining popularity and it was no longer a technology just for military use.

The dynamics of warfare has changed drastically over the decades. Modern war cannot be won just by brute force, as was the case till the early 2000s. Countries have come up with less visual but effective warfare such as Economic Warfare, Cyber Warfare, Electronic Warfare etc. It is not hard to imagine why these new types of warfare have emerged with modernization and globalization being very big factors.