Aligning Electronic and Cyber Warfare

Similarities Exist Between the Two, but They Are Not the Same
Aligning Electronic and Cyber Warfare

Electronic warfare isn't the same as cyber warfare, but similarities exist between the two, and the United States Department of Defense must address those commonalities to provide better defense capabilities, a new audit reveals.

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Electronic warfare includes military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy. Cyber warfare involves crippling adversaries through information systems and the Internet. Electronic warfare and cyberspace operations are complementary and have potentially synergistic effects. For example, use of an airborne weapons system to deliver malicious code into cyberspace via a wireless connection would be characterized as "electronic warfare-delivered computer network attack," according to a Government Accountability Office report issued July 9.

As part of its audit, GAO assessed the planning, organizing and implementing of an effective DoD governance structure to oversee its electronic warfare policy and programs and their relationship to cyberspace operations. GAO analyzed policies, plans and studies related to electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.

Among its recommendations, GAO suggests the DoD update key departmental guidance to clearly define oversight roles, responsibilities and coordination for electronic warfare management, and the relationship between electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.

Though the audit focuses primarily on ways to improve electronic warfare management, GAO says cyberspace considerations may complicate matters for the DoD because of the evolving relationship between electronic warfare and cyberspace operations, specifically computer network operations.

GAO, citing interviews with DoD officials, say electronic warfare must be clearly and distinctly defined in its relationship to information operations to include computer network operations and the emerging domain of cyberspace to ensure all aspects of electronic warfare can be developed and integrated to achieve electromagnetic spectrum control.

Yet, GAO says, DoD's directives do not clearly define the roles and responsibilities for the oversight of electronic warfare in relation to the roles and responsibilities for information operations.

Blurring the Lines

DoD's fiscal year 2011 electronic warfare strategy report to Congress, which delineated its electronic warfare strategy, stated that the strategy has two, often co-dependent capabilities: traditional electronic warfare and computer network attack, which is part of cyberspace operations. Because the relationship between electronic warfare and cyberspace operations - including computer network attack - continues to evolve, new opportunities and challenges will surface.

"There will be operations and capabilities that blur the lines between cyberspace operations and electronic warfare because of the continued expansion of wireless networking and the integration of computers and radio frequency communications," Brian Lepore, GAO director of defense capabilities and management, writes in the audit. "Electronic warfare capabilities may serve as a means of accessing otherwise inaccessible networks to conduct cyberspace operations; presenting new opportunities for offensive action as well as the need for defensive preparations."

Existing DOD doctrine partially describes the relationship between electronic warfare and cyberspace operations. Specifically, current joint doctrine for electronic warfare, which was last updated in February, states that since cyberspace requires wired and wireless links to transport information, offensive and defensive cyberspace operations may require use of the electromagnetic spectrum for the enabling of effects in cyberspace. "Due to the complementary nature and potential synergistic effects of electronic warfare and computer network operations," Lepore says, "they must be coordinated to ensure they are applied to maximize effectiveness."

Yet, he points out that DoD hasn't published specific joint doctrine for cyberspace operations. When wired access to a computer system is limited, electromagnetic access may be able to successfully penetrate the computer system. Use of an airborne weapons system to deliver malicious code into cyberspace via a wireless connection would be characterized as electronic warfare-delivered computer network attack. In addition, the doctrine mentions that electronic warfare applications in support of homeland defense are critical to deter, detect, prevent and defeat external threats such as cyberspace threats.

GAO recommends that DoD establish a time frame for deciding whether to proceed with a dedicated joint doctrine publication on cyberspace operations and update existing cyber-related joint doctrine.

Words Have Meaning

The audit also points out the importance of employing the same terms for electronic and cyber warfare, noting that the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command conducted an assessment of how the Army's future force will leverage cyberspace operations and found that the Army's current vocabulary, including terms such as computer network operations, electronic warfare and information operations, will become increasingly inadequate.

"These terms are becoming outdated as the operational environment rapidly changes due to factors such as technologic convergence of computer and telecommunication networks, astonishing rates of technologic advancements and the global proliferation of information and communications technology," Lapore says.

It's not just the lingo. United States Cyber Command officials told GAO that it's critical to understand how electronic warfare and cyberspace operations capabilities might be used in an operational setting. Cyber Command officials have participated in regular meetings with representatives from the military services, the National Security Agency, defense research laboratories and others, to discuss the relationship of electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.

In addition, GAO says, the Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics has established steering committees to develop road maps for the department's seven designated science and technology priority areas, one of which is cyberspace operations and another is electronic warfare.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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