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Electronic Warfare Future Proof?

Electronic warfare community needs to ask difficult questions if it is to keep abreast of the threat in the coming decade

What will be Electronic Warfare’s (EW) trajectory over the next decade? This was the question asked by delegates and speakers alike during the final afternoon of the EW Europe conference and exhibition being held in Stockholm between 14 May and 15 May.

Off-the-record presentations and discussions noted that the world of EW had experienced seismic shocks since the commencement of the century 19 years ago. As the US and NATO led an international coalition of nations into prolonged wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001, one speaker noted that the lion’s share of the EW efforts of the coalitions fighting against non-state actors in these theatres were directed two-fold:

Firstly, tasks focused on frustrating the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for the activation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). These were often detonated using easily-available equipment transmitting RF (Radio Frequency) energy. Typically insurgents would employ cell phones, remote control equipment such as baby monitors or garage door openers as initiators to this end. Electronic attack was thus directed primarily against wavebands of circa 30 megahertz up to three gigahertz routinely used by such devices.

Secondly, EW practitioners in both theatres kept watch on the same stretch of the radio spectrum to identify, monitor and geo-locate insurgent communications using cell phones or rudimentary civilian handheld radios.

The past ten years, some participants argued, have been something of a ‘wake-up call’ not only to the EW community, but to armed forces around the world. The US and her allies now face sophisticated so-called ‘near-peer’ adversaries (read the People’s Republic of China and Russia). These either have, or may soon be able to attain, a level of electromagnetic sophistication comparable with, or superior to, that routinely used by the US and allied powers. As a consequence, some EW doctrines from the late-Cold War era are being dusted off and revisited. Nonetheless, as one speaker posited, one cannot simply take a manual drafted in the heat of superpower rivalry 40 years ago and hope that it will fit the EW doctrine-shaped hole that some armed forces are now facing in this new strategic paradigm.

Technology has moved exponentially in the intervening years. Unlike the Cold War when West-East civilian technology transfers could be highly controlled, a state-of-the-art cell phone or tablet is as freely available on the prospekts of Moscow as it is on the streets of Manchester. Russian operations in the Crimea and Syria have dramatically underscored the danger and challenge of hybrid warfare where offensive operations are wrapped up with information and psychological warfare and cyberattacks. Neither is this an abstract concept.

As one delegate noted: “the future is already here,” and this is the environment within which EW practitioners will have to navigate if they are to enjoy freedom of manoeuvre in the electromagnetic space. Next year’s EW Europe exhibition and conference, expected to be held in June 2020 in Liverpool, north-western England, will be the first such event of a new decade. If the last decade serve as an instructive guide, the shocks and surprises will be as plentiful as they have been over the past ten years.

Dr Tom Withington


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