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Bridging Cyber and Electronic Warfare
by Matthew Schehl, Naval Postgraduate School
February 26, 2022

Naval Postgraduate School LogoIn a way that only the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) can, researchers are wrapping up a major foundational study exploring the convergence of Electronic and Cyber Warfare.

The TS/SCI-classified study, commissioned by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), identifies a roadmap to meet the technological and acquisitional challenges inherent in ensuring American dominance across the future Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS). This has the potential to inform the Naval Research Enterprise’s investment portfolio for years to come, according to the project’s NPS lead U.S. Navy Cmdr. Chad Bollmann, director of the university’s Center for Cyber Warfare (CCW).

“The focus of this study was mainly technology, essentially the vision for the convergence of electronic and cyber warfare,” he said. “We identified many current gaps – including some doctrinal and authorities ones – and recommended areas for investment with approximate resource estimates, timelines and, most importantly, how the gaps and proposed solutions interact.

“Having the best technology is the first step, but you also have to acquire, integrate and practice that technology if they’re going to be effective,” Bollman continued.

The study was solicited by ONR’s Code 31 (its Electronic Warfare [EW] section) as a means to guide technologies investment by the Navy over the near to mid-term.

Working closely with Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific (NWIC-PAC)’s deep EW bench over the last year, an interdisciplinary team of nine researchers - military and civilian, field practitioners and academics - brought their strong expertise to the table.

For example, NPS faculty members Bret Michael, chairman of the Cyber Academic Group, and Ric Romero, who runs the Center for Joint Services Electronic Warfare, each brought a wealth of field experience in EW and Cyber Security, respectively. Lt. Col. Michael Senft, Military Faculty Lecturer in the computer science department, is a career Army Information Network Engineering Officer. CCW Faculty Research Associate Darren Rogers recently retired following a 24-year Navy career as enlisted and an Information Warfare Officer.

“Having been part of the Navy starting in the early 90s, I’ve seen first-hand how things have changed with the ever-networked world and the proliferation of technologies the Navy has leveraged in the Electronic and Information Warfare environments,” Rogers said.

It’s the ability to tap into expertise like this that truly sets NPS apart, Bollman stresses, uniquely positioning the university to undertake this study.

“NPS is by nature joint and interdisciplinary,” Bollmann said. “Our ability to combine both the deep academic expertise plus the military practitioners in uniform with diverse kinds of Fleet experience and Fleet connections really is why we were chosen to conduct this study.”

Following an initial classified and unclassified literature review, the NPS-NIWC team engaged their extensive networks to interview subject matter experts at major Combatant Commands, the heads of various services’ research labs and functional commands.

“We talked with Fleet Cyber Command, Army Cyber Command and Marine Forces Cyber Command,” Bollmann recalled. “In all, we conducted approximately 40 in-depth interviews in order to identify specific technological gaps in the convergence of Electronic and Cyber Warfare.”

U.S. Cyber Command members work in the Integrated Cyber Center, Joint Operations Center at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on April 2, 2021. (U.S. Cyber Command photo by Josef Cole)
U.S. Cyber Command members work in the Integrated Cyber Center, Joint Operations Center at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on April 2, 2021. (U.S. Cyber Command photo by Josef Cole)

While the study takes a deep dive into specific technologies and their platforms, a common theme emerged from the interviews: siloing.

This is reflected at heart in the very definitions of two different disciplines (e.g, Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations) which historically have resulted in separate communities with different practices throughout the military.

“At some point, these [conceptual] models become obstacles and systems don’t talk with each other,” Bollmann said. “At the end of the day, these are distinctions our adversaries are not making.”

Attaining ascendancy across the EMS means not only ensuring secure access for American forces and allies, but also the ability to degrade and deny the technological capabilities of these adversaries. Furthermore, the proliferation of affordable commercial technology has dramatically lowered barriers to entry to hackers who wish us harm.

“The Navy’s traditional views on EW and Cyber relegate them to separate silos and are concerned with their defensive use,” noted Lt. Matt Litton, a Navy Cryptologic Warfare Officer and current Ph.D. student in NPS’ Department of Computer Science. With recent deployment experience as the Cryptologic Resource Coordinator at Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG), he provided first-hand operational experience to the depth of the study.

“Combatant commanders are looking for increasingly flexible, low-cost and reversible response options to hold near-peer adversaries at risk, and the convergence of EW and Cyber provides a key component of that strategy,” Litton explained. “Making effective use of synchronized non-kinetic effects will require increased research and development, expanded authorities and tighter integration with traditional warfare disciplines. This study’s aim was to aid the Navy’s research enterprise in focusing on the most critical areas to provide operational commanders with an asymmetric advantage over our near-peer adversaries.”

A key component of this, the study notes, is a concurrent realignment of acquisition processes to fully enable the convergence of EW and Cyber.

Currently, acquisition models are structured around unique programs which produce a capability for a specific user community. Introducing a more modular approach, however, would yield interoperable capabilities that could be integrated to achieve combined effects, according to Howard Pace, Professor of the Practice of Acquisition Management in NPS’ Department of Defense Management.

“Building to common Technical Reference Frameworks (TRFs) to produce highly integrable and interoperable capabilities would be a good beginning,” he said. “TRFs are not new and are widely used in commercial software production. This is a good model to follow since most EW and Cyber capabilities are software-intensive.”

“Following their model and incorporating their common continuous, iterative development and delivery process standard would increase our acquisition speed while allowing for changes and the quick incorporation of feedback by the end-user, the warfighter,” Pace added.

However, enabling such a model may require a sea change in how the Navy thinks about the acquisition process, he said.

“Converging EW and cyber capabilities will require a culture shift away from doing what we have always done in the past, of saying that it is too much risk or that it isn’t specifically for my customer,” he continued. “In an era of Great Power Competition, I do not think we can afford that.”

With NPS's portion of the study winding down, Bollmann and his team will next brief ONR on their findings.

This will set the stage for investment priorities converging EW and Cyber technologies both in the short term, i.e. over the next three to five years, as well as over the longer-term horizon of seven years and beyond.

“A lot of our recommendations frankly aren’t huge rocket science things, but the hard part will be getting all of these different capabilities to work together,” Bollmann said. “What they do, though, is let us protect our own platforms while holding our adversaries at risk anywhere in the world without necessarily having to put our major platforms or sailors at risk. This is critical.

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