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It’s About Time the EMS Became a Domain


By Barry Manz, Editor, Military Microwave Digest

After much gnashing of teeth, the Pentagon has recognized cyberspace as a domain of warfare, adding it to the previous four: land, sea, air, and space. This took a lot of thought because unlike the others, cyberspace is truly amorphous, its only physical manifestation being its connection to the Internet. You can’t stand on it, swim in it, fly through it, or “float” in it as you can in the other four, but the sheer magnitude of cyberspace eventually convinced most people in DoD that it ought to be categorized as its own domain of war.

As any reader of this publication well knows, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is at least as physically present as cyberspace and every bit as important for defense. So, why then has there been such controversy about making the EMS a domain as well? For six or seven years, there has been an ongoing debate about whether the EMS has the characteristics that would make it eligible to become the sixth domain. Why this should even be a topic of discussion is a mystery to me as it should be to anyone in the RF and microwave industry.

This illustration depicts the all-inclusive nature of electromagnetic spectrum operations, having a direct effect on all other domains.

It can’t possibly be because the EMS is not as significant as cyberspace. In fact, it is arguably even more important because without it none of the systems fielded by DoD could even function in the battlespace. There would be no way for the hundreds or thousands of war fighters in the theater of battle and elsewhere to communicate with each other except for screaming and waving their hands. Radars couldn’t scan for targets, missiles couldn’t hit them, satellites couldn’t detect them, GPS couldn’t precisely locate them, and EW systems couldn’t defeat them. That’s the short list; there are many other prime examples as well.

Of course, you could make the case that humans are really the first domain and lately that germs qualify as well, along with humanitarian aid, and medicine, and there are good arguments to be made either way. But the EMS is different because it has physical presence no less than that of cyberspace, the former being present in systems, the air, and space, while the latter is traditionally relegated to the wires carrying the threats (although wires really are necessary as the EMS is increasingly subject to hacking and other forms of information warfare).

There are many good reasons why the EMS should be considered a domain. Although little attention has been paid to EW for nearly 30 years, recently EW has become recognized as the non-kinetic weapon that may define the characteristics of future wars. If recognized as the sixth domain, the EMS and EW in particular could be better defined and compartmentalized and considered a more important line item in the defense budget.

DoD has long recognized that electromagnetic dominance is a crucial enabling factor for allowing the U.S. to achieve its goals and has even said that the EMS actually transcends all domains. In fact, some critics of calling the EMS a domain cite that it actually understates its importance.

That is, while you can conduct airstrikes without troops on the ground, conduct naval operations without land-based air support, or even send in troops without air cover, military ships, aircraft, and ground forces simply cannot operate without using the EMS. That this is a fact has not been disputed for more than a century, previous to which, for lack of capabilities in the EMS, militaries used runners, pigeons, balloons, and other ways to check on their adversaries and communicate. As one Navy captain stated in a conference several years ago, “I would be hard-pressed to show any domain that would not use some form of electromagnetic spectrum maneuver to conduct operations.”

Fortunately, there is some good news concerning this topic, as the Pentagon is slowly and subtly changing the name of electronic warfare to electromagnetic warfare, as electronic warfare today seems truly archaic and probably was named incorrectly in the first place. The Air Force correctly points out in one of its documents that the legacy term actually relates to attacking electronic circuits associated with electromagnetic energy rather than the full meaning of what EW really is. It also points out that it envisions the Pentagon will eventually change electronic to electromagnetic in future doctrine.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office issued a report last December “suggesting” that DoD remedy the issues surrounding the creation of a military-wide strategy for orchestrating Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (EMSO) including spectrum management, rather than simply having countless discussions about how to implement it. The report criticizes DoD’s failure to take key actions such as identifying processes and procedures to integrate EMSO, reforming government structures, and clearly assigning the leadership to achieve it. GAO’s analysis of EMSO considers electromagnetic warfare and electromagnetic spectrum management as the two entities within EMSO.

One important change has already occurred in the reconfiguration of the 16th Air Force, which is now responsible for all activities taking place within the EMS as well as cyber, placing them all within this single entity. This is a significant departure from the past, in which all of these activities had their own stove piped domains, a structure that was inherently ripe for fights over territory and a lack of information sharing. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, and an important one.

This being said, the EMS is still not its own domain, at least not formally, but it seems inconceivable to me that it will not be because there are just too many good reasons why it should. But this, after all, is the Department of Defense, so our new sixth domain may take some time before a declaration is made announcing its new stature.