Who remembers that scene in the movie Spaceballs where Lone Starr jams the enemy radar using raspberry jam, causing it to lose the “bleeps, the sweeps, and the creeps”? While Mel Brooks does show what electronic warfare can do, the details aren’t exactly accurate. In this post, we will clear up some of these details in our discussion on electronic attack.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe how quickly technology progresses. It’s only been about a decade since Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone. And today, between checking email, navigating to a new restaurant, sharing photos with family and turning the lights on or off in my kid’s room, it’s hard to image life without a smart phone.
Let’s go back in time to the year 1992—about 15 years before the iPhone and the beginning of the Joint Strike Fighter program. While the earliest prototypes flew in late 2000, it wasn’t until 2006 that the F-35 had its first test flight. Then, in 2011, almost two decades after the program began, the first production aircraft rolled off the assembly line. While this was a very long development time when compared to smart phones, no one would trust a smart phone with their life. That said, the digital revolution of the last decade is finding its way to the electronic warfare (EW) industry, and it’s forcing us to change how we deploy EW systems.
This new and continually changing reality was on everyone’s mind at the recent AOC Symposium and Conference held in Washington, DC. The symposium theme, “Winning the Electromagnetic Spectrum Domain: A Culture and Mind Shift”, captured the sentiment clearly.
“They have a missile-lock on us!” is a phrase we’ve heard countless times in movies and is usually a sign that a radar-guided missile is incoming. Ever wonder how the aircraft’s systems detect this type of threat? In this post, we’ll discuss how a radar warning receiver provides information on an adversary’s radar, as well as some general information on electronic support. Before we get into the details, I recommend reviewing the two previous posts for a brief background of the history of electronic warfare and an overview of radar.
What is Electronic Support?
Electronic support (ES) is the set of technologies and methods designed to receive and analyze an adversary’s transmissions of electromagnetic signals. This includes locating the sources of radar signals as well as identifying the adversary’s communication signals.
There is crossover between ES and signal intelligence (SIGINT), but the key difference is that ES is more tactical while SIGINT is more strategic. For example, while an ES system might identify an adversary’s communication signal so it can be jammed, a SIGINT system will intercept the transmission for longer-term strategic planning. Additionally, electronic support is less concerned with the content of the signal and instead is focused on the technical details of the transmission itself.
While both ES and SIGINT are critical, this article focuses on electronic support and its objective of improving situational awareness.
In the first post of this series, we discussed the history of electronic warfare with an emphasis on the back-and-forth competition to develop systems that grant the owner control over the electromagnetic spectrum. When one country develops a new radar system, its adversary starts working on a jammer. In order to mitigate the effects of the jammer, the radar developer then must design a system that protects the radar from those effects.
This invisible battle over control of the electromagnetic spectrum is critical to success on the battlefield and is the topic of the subsequent posts. However, understanding the technology to jam and deceive radar requires an understanding of the radar systems.
We’re all familiar with the applications of radar—that yellow warning light on your mirror telling you someone is in your blind spot, police radar monitoring your speed, images on the news showing the path of a storm. However, for the purpose of understanding electronic warfare, we’ll look at the types of radar in three main groups.