America has to reinvent its airborne, warfighting capabilities to close gaps in technology that are already being exploited by the products of peer or near-peer nations, say Pentagon officials.

U.S. air and naval forces, plus those of its closest allies, may soon have to face weapons with advanced cyber-, stealth, electronic and directed-energy applications in a new era of contested aerial operations, say senior U.S. officials. For example, advanced radar is compromising stealth, air defense missiles can reach hundreds of miles to push attackers away from key targets, and information operations can turn precision navigation, logistics or command-and-control into bad and possibly lethal jokes.

The catch is that the technology to counter new threats has to be cheap—to match the U.S. defense budget—and easy to install. It must, in fact, fit on existing aircraft without modification. In the main, that would mean building systems sized for relatively small external pods carried by fighter-size aircraft or remotely piloted vehicles.

The road map is being formulated in a U.S. Air Force study called Effective Warfighting in Contested Environments (Ewice). Its goal is to sift through all the unusual weapons, materials and electronics in development and prototype programs to find and field the most promising concepts as operational tools.

Ewice teams will focus on three areas—materials, tactics and training—to help field new weapons that are effective in contested arenas. They also will try to match new capabilities to known gaps in U.S. tactics and technologies.

Some capabilities to be considered are lasers of 100 kw or perhaps much more, the U.S. Navy's Next Generation Jammer, non-kinetic weapons and devices that can conduct sophisticated electronic warfare in little-used segments of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Other areas of interest include work conducted in the Air Force's “Suter demonstrations”—where integrated air defenses were penetrated with data beams carrying malicious algorithms—and variants of the destructive Stuxnet and Flame reconnaissance cyberviruses that invaded Iran's nuclear and missile programs, says a long-time defense operator and researcher with insight into the program.

“We know what the contested environment looks like, and the training officers are looking for the tactics panel to identify the gaps and the tactics that can create the gaps,” says Randy Walden, director for the Air Force's information dominance programs.

Just as important as keeping costs down is a short technology gestation cycle.

“The search is for weapons that are effective in contested airspace [and] that can be in operation in less than five years,” the researcher says. Those judging which programs to fund “will look at what can go into a pod to update today's aircraft inventory without having to cut holes in them, he says.

There may be pending technology improvements that could push laser power up into the 400-700-kw range, but so far there has been no breakthrough that would produce airborne solid-state lasers that could burn through metal, says another longtime aerospace official and former fighter pilot.

“The ranges are increasing at which electronics, optics, sensors and electronic arrays can be affected by something that can be put into a pod,” the researcher says. “But if [the target is] not electronics or optics or arrays, you still need a lot of power on the target to have any effect.” That capability will not yet fit into a pod that a fighter can carry.

Ewice will be tied to the Air Force and Navy's AirSea Battle concept for which the services are working together to develop joint tactics, points out Air Force Lt. Gen. (ret.) Bob Elder, a professor of engineering at George Washington University. A major thrust of the Ewice study will look at the electromagnetic spectrum and information threat, he says. Its results will be folded into AirSea Battle and its associated focus on overcoming Anti-Access and Area Denial capabilities that are now for sale on the world market.

Because Ewice is looking at adjunct capabilities that could be incorporated into existing aircraft rapidly, it is considered complementary to the AirSea Battle investments, Walden says.

Another related element is the nascent Joint Aerial Layer Network that the services would like to have in place to improve network-centric warfare.

“We don't have anything that fits into a robust networking capability from the air, although there are lots of concepts, including using Global Hawk [unmanned aircraft] or even medium-altitude concepts to provide that gateway,” Walden says.

“Where Ewice will focus is on data links between fighters, early warning to fighters, fighters to missiles and a satcom ability to move data and communicate,” he notes. “Its goal is to identify what we can buy back in a short amount of time. Ideas include linking F-22s and F-15s and maybe a Link 16 contact. The are lots of areas that have been identified as potential gaps. So Ewice will complement whatever becomes the Joint Aerial Layer Network.”

But there is an underlying issue with both the new problems and the new solutions—how do you train against them and develop advanced tactics?

“We don't have really good ways to simulate these problems today,” Elder says. “If we jam GPS [navigation] or line-of-sight communications, it has effects on civil air travel and television sets. We're also used to flying remotely piloted aircraft over Afghanistan and Iraq, and they worked well, but we didn't have to deal with communications being threatened and people trying to get in to put a cyberthreat on the system. If you deal with a peer adversary, those things are going to happen. Rather that let that occur, we're trying to think about what an adversary would do and try to stay a step ahead.”

In fact, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operating in a contested airspace was one of the primary drivers of the Ewice study.

“It requires a lot of connectivity to command and control RPAs and to get information off of them,” Elder says. “Right now, that requires an uncontested environment. Is there another way to operate them effectively, even if communications are degraded? We could use medium-altitude RPAs as standoff communications adjuncts until they are needed for their [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities.”

The Ewice study involves the U.S. Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Air Force and Canadian Air Force. The Ewice project has begun discussions with coalition partners about involving their systems and technologies in order to understand how those and their tactics fit in. Program offices, development planning offices and the Air Force Research Laboratory are participating as well.

The study also will incorporate the findings from a number of previous senior-level studies, such as “A Day Without Space,” which confronted officials with a temporary loss of all sources of information gathered from spacecraft.

“We started thinking about how we might deal with degraded space capabilities as we began working through the Pacific Pivot,” Elder says. “Perhaps we should do a Day Without Spectra, Information, Cyber or Early Warning. They are intended to produce input from a lot of the primary thinkers across the services and our allies.”