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U.S. Joint Force Survivability Hinges On New Jammer

U.S. Joint Force Survivability Hinges On New Jammer 
07:17 GMT, October 13, 2010 The universe is shaped by a handful of fundamental forces such as gravity and the "strong force" that binds atoms. Only one of these forces has proven to be highly malleable in the hands of human beings: electromagnetism. The skillful application of electromagnetism to every facet of human activity has made it the motive force of modern civilization. Electricity and electronics are ubiquitous in commerce and culture, and they have come to define the way we wage war. Success in combat today is largely about exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum while denying its use to adversaries. Unfortunately, some of our tools for doing so have grown obsolete at a time when enemies have more warfighting options than ever before thanks to the information revolution.

A case in point is the main airborne jamming system currently used by the joint force. It was conceived in the 1960s and fielded in the 1970s to counter hostile radars and communications systems, but technology has come a long way since then. Vacuum tubes have given way to integrated circuits, mechanically-steered radars have been replaced by phased arrays, and circuit-switched communications links are rapidly being supplanted by packet-switched networks. In this rapidly changing world, the joint force needs a better jammer to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated moves of enemies. The program the Pentagon has created to meet this need is called the Next Generation Jammer.

The basic purpose of jammers is to deny enemies effective use of the radio-frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This can be done by simply overwhelming the relevant frequencies with so much energy that weaker signals cannot be heard, or it can be done more subtly by generating deceptive transmissions mimicking features of the hostile signal. Either way, jammers produce important intelligence about threats because they must be able to accurately detect and analyze hostile signals in order to counter them. Precision is crucial since the hostile signals cannot be defeated unless jammers transmit with sufficient power in the frequency ranges where the enemy is operating. On the other hand, if the power is too great and spills over into adjacent frequencies it can impair the transmissions of friendly forces.

The latter problem, called fratricide, has become a chronic issue with the current jammer. It sometimes interferes with global-positioning signals and datalinks on which the joint force depends. It also lacks the capacity to generate a sufficient number of jamming beams to cover all the threats in the increasingly dense electronic battlefield. More broadly, the basic architecture of the current jammer lacks the scalability, flexibility and supportability to cope with emerging threats. Some of the 2,500 jamming pods currently in use are nearly 40 years old, meaning they are hard to maintain and lack features needed to deal with today's digital dangers.

The Next Generation Jammer program was conceived to develop a modular jamming system that could cope with any radio-frequency threat likely to appear for decades to come. It will integrate both military and commercial technologies in an open architecture that can be easily upgraded as threats warrant while providing greater frequency coverage, radiated power, steering agility and operational availability to the joint force. It will also manage power levels and signal transmissions to minimize fratricide. The requirement for such a system appears to be well understood by policymakers, but it must be fielded soon if the joint force is to avoid being overwhelmed by the digital onslaught of diverse adversaries.

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
07:17 GMT, October 13, 2010