The U.S. Navy's expanding mission in Asia and the Pacific Ocean is a striking example of early planning turned on its head by changing threats. That upset is now being righted by innovations on the fly.

New technologies—including aircraft carriers and stealthy strike aircraft—will be transferred to the Asia-Pacific theater. But equally new, foreign-built surveillance systems, electronic attack weapons and cyberinvasion tools are unexpectedly threatening crucial sensors and communications on advanced ships and aircraft, say top Pentagon officials.

The advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example, has a new vulnerability. Its wide-angle field-of-view radar can be attacked with cyberweapons through its active, electronically scanned array (AESA) antennas. Airborne cyberweapons form data beams that can be packed with malware and directed into a target antenna. These devices are being developed by several nations specifically to electronically attack, jam, invade and exploit high-value, airborne targets, say U.S. electronic warfare (EW) specialists.

In particular, U.S. analysts have been watching China develop EW platforms to attack specific types of high-value sensor and command-and-control aircraft, says a longtime U.S. EW specialist. These include E-3 AWACS air-to-air radar, E-8 Joint Stars air-to-ground radar and P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft.

“Electronic attack can be the method of penetrating a system to implant viruses,” says the EW specialist. “You've got to find a way into the workings of that [target] system and generally that's through some sort of emitted signal.”

Moreover, three years ago, several terabytes of data—some of it related to the F-35's electronics systems—were copied during a series of break-ins of contractor networks. Penetrations were traced to known Chinese Internet addresses.

Part of the Navy's strategy is to shift at least one additional, new-built aircraft carrier—packed with AESA-equipped aircraft—to the West Coast for duty in the Pacific. The new carrier designs have added aircraft elevators and centralized weapons lifts to increase the speed of rearming and sortie generation by 25%, says Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the Navy's program executive officer for aircraft carriers.

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, has noted the “constantly evolving and changing” cyberthreat.

In fact, the potential problem threatens the advanced radar on all models of the F-35, F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler. Each has an AESA that doubles or triples the radar's resolution and ranges over conventional radio-frequency sensors. The radars also are adept at collecting signals that can be altered and infected.

“I'm particularly worried about the effects of jammers [and cyberattack] on our radars,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “It's difficult to separate electronic warfare from cyberattack. EW is an area that is undervalued and understressed. In some places we've fallen behind.”

As a result, initiatives are being launched to block those radar vulnerabilities. Last summer, specialists started combing through the Pentagon's EW programs and will decide this fall where to allocate additional funds to catch up, says Carter. Specialists know a lot about EW and cyberoperations as applied in Iran and Afghanistan, but now the Air Force and Navy are looking at the more formidable technologies they will face in the Asia-Pacific region. So far, most of the upgrades for tactical aircraft and shipboard radars to counter jammers and cyberattacks have been sustained in the proposed 2013 budget. But cuts will still impact EW and cyber programs.

“We're still not remotely satisfied with cyber [defenses],” says Carter. “We have several different projects . . . to secure military networks and to provide network support for the civilian infrastructure. When it comes to cyber, we're not only protecting but actually increasing a lot of the new capabilities.”

The veteran airborne EW specialist says the threat to radars and other systems using AESA antennas is less a looming catastrophe than simply another thrust and parry in the fencing match of EW that has been going on since before World War II. “As radars mature, the signals processing gets smarter and intrusion becomes less of an issue until some new technique is invented,” he says. “The benefit of our new systems is that they have multiple sensors covering different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that allow sensor fusion to overcome point solutions with digital RF memory and tremendous signal processing capability.”

As for whether an AESA could serve as a conduit for EW or cyberattack, the same issue surrounds any other electronic aperture on an aircraft, ship or vehicle. In fact, AESAs have had to deal with jamming and spoofing from the beginning of their use. The first F-22 squadron, for example, had its sensitive electronic surveillance overwhelmed by large radars on ships from the nearby Norfolk, Va., naval base.

“The only new issue is the attempted introduction of a virus or some other network attack element through the AESA,” says the EW specialist. “All are conduits for incoming signals. The question is how you process the signal to retain the value-added information and reject or exploit the hostile content. As in most systems, we have multiple layers of signals rejection.”

There are ways to attack an AESA radar on a dedicated one-to-one basis, says Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for operations. However, that vulnerability can be mitigated by the fusion of multiple radars. If several aircraft with AESAs network themselves together, the radar being attacked can shut down and rely on information available on the network. Another option is to switch to infrared or electro-optical sensors.

“There is a technique we are looking at that involves sensor fusion combined with a network-integrated capability to take data from multiple sources as a defense,” Carlisle says.