The problems of fighting an over-focused war

In the 1980’s I saw at first hand how an otherwise superb armed force can become over-focused on a particular environment, to the detriment of its broader capabilities.  The South African Defense Force was unquestionably the finest fighting force in Africa in a bush warfare environment.  However, its focus on that environment during its Border War meant that its capability to fight a more conventional war, using technology and tactics better able to meet different challenges and opponents, atrophied.  Its Navy became run down and incapable of achieving its designated tasks, while the Air Force (partly due to an international arms embargo) focused on dealing with the situation in Angola, which of necessity reduced its abilities in many other important areas.  These imbalances still exist to a certain extent in the modern South African Defense Force, which is a shadow of its former self.

The US armed forces have been facing the same challenges as a result of the War on Terror.  Much of their training and equipment has been focused on dealing with terrorists and ‘minor-league’ warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While great success was achieved in both countries from a military perspective, a lack of attention to political, social and economic aspects has meant that both nations are still destabilized and unlikely to achieve any semblance of normality for years, if not decades, to come.  Furthermore, the USA spent billions of dollars on weapons systems designed and optimized for those wars (e.g. MRAPs, IED countermeasures, etc.) and hired tens of thousands of civilian ‘contractors’ (mercenaries, in so many words – often former US military personnel, but including large numbers of foreigners) to ‘outsource’ many aspects of the war, particularly providing security to installations, individuals, infrastructure and transportation routes.  The expenses thus incurred meant that a lot less money was available for more conventional weapons systems and training in their use.

To take just one example in more detail, this is becoming particularly apparent in the area of electronic warfare.  Defense News recently reported:

Ukrainian forces have grappled with formidable Russian electronic warfare capabilities that analysts say would prove withering even to the US ground forces. The US Army has also jammed insurgent communications from the air and ground on a limited basis, and it is developing a powerful arsenal of jamming systems, but these are not expected until 2023.

“Our soldiers are doing the training with the Ukrainians and we’ve learned a lot from the Ukrainians,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges. “A third of the [Ukrainian] soldiers have served in the … combat zone, and no Americans have been under Russian artillery or rocket fire, or significant Russian electronic warfare, jamming or collecting — and these Ukrainians have. It’s interesting to hear what they have learned.”

Hodges acknowledged that US troops are learning from Ukrainians about Russia’s jamming capability, its ranges, types and the ways it has been employed. He has previously described the quality and sophistication of Russian electronic warfare as “eye-watering.”

Russia maintains an ability to destroy command-and-control networks by jamming radio communications, radars and GPS signals, according to Laurie Buckhout, former chief of the US Army’s electronic warfare division, now CEO of the Corvus Group. In contrast with the US, Russia has large units dedicated to electronic warfare, known as EW, which it dedicates to ground electronic attack, jamming communications, radar and command-and-control nets.

. . .

“Our biggest problem is we have not fought in a comms-degraded environment for decades, so we don’t know how to do it,” Buckhout said. “We lack not only tactics, techniques and procedures but the training to fight in a comms-degraded environment.”

It’s not hard to see why EW is an attractive option for Russia while the eyes of the world are on it. Not only is it highly effective, but as a non-kinetic form of attack, it is harder to trace and less likely to be viewed as overt aggression, and as such, less likely to incite the ire of the international community, Buckhout said.

In a fight, Russia’s forces can hinder a target’s ability to respond to, say, an artillery attack, allowing them to fire on an enemy with impunity. Ukrainian forces would be unable to coordinate a defense against incoming rockets and missiles, or release counter battery fire.

“If your radars don’t see incoming fire, you can’t coordinate counterfire,” Buckhout said.

The US, Buckhout said, lacks a significant electronic attack capability.

“We have great signals intelligence, and we can listen all day long, but we can’t shut them down one-tenth to the degree they can us,” she said. “We are very unprotected from their attacks on our network.”

Col. Jeffrey Church, the Army’s electronic warfare division chief, acknowledged that since the Cold War, adversaries have continued to modernize their EW capabilities, while the Army began reinvesting its capabilities for Iraq and Afghanistan. Church called the fielding of Army electronic warfare equipment the “No. 1 priority” of his job.

There’s more at the link.

Strategy Page observes:

Since 2014 when Russia began threatening and invading its European neighbors (especially Ukraine and the Baltic States) NATO has learned a lot more about Russian post-Cold War EW (electronic warfare) capabilities. The fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) led the Russians to use a lot of their most modern electronic warfare equipment. Not just Cold War era stuff (which Ukraine inherited a lot of after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991) but equipment NATO knows was developed in the 1990s or later but not encountered until now. NATO now believes that Russia has developed effective and reliable encrypted battlefield radios that are proving very difficult for Western forces to decrypt or jam. As expected, Russian eavesdropping and jamming gear turned out to be very effective. This Russian gear has greatly aided the rebels, who have neither captured any advanced Ukrainian electronic warfare equipment or possess the number of electronic warfare experts needed to operate the equipment required to explain the amount of jamming and eavesdropping the rebels are being supported with. Thus the rebels can jam or eavesdrop on all manner of Ukrainian communications (cell phones, military communications and control equipment for UAVs and anything else operated remotely) and jam those communications as well. It also appears that the Russians have not used all the capabilities of their electronic gear.

Again, more at the link.

This may tie in with electronic attacks on US domestic computer networks, widely reported in recent months.  Electronic warfare doesn’t only take place on the battlefield;  nowadays the field has expanded to include so-called ‘cyberwarfare‘ as well.  Many see them as separate disciplines, but I don’t necessarily agree.  When you’re dealing with signal interception and analysis, encryption and decryption, and interfering with enemy networks while interference-proofing your own, I see the two fields as fundamentally similar.  Either way, it seems the USA has some catching up to do.



  1. That is one of the reasons why I feel like a letter of reprisal would have been a better way to go in the GWOT. A letter of reprisal is a letter issued by a government that allows that government to pay third parties to forcibly take property of another nation. This is completely Constitutional under US law. Of course international law would argue that "States have a duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force." Resolution 2625 (XXV) of the UN.

    We could have issued a bounty on Osama Bin Laden's head of $1 billion. A bounty of $50 million each could have been offered for lesser al Qaeda leaders. This would have been cheaper than the $1 trillion and thousands of American lives it cost us. For that kind of money, you would get some serious effort. This would have allowed our military to concentrate on defeating other armies, while the bounty hunters killed off the terrorists for us.

    Of course, the critics would point out that Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions forbids reprisals against civilians and civilian property. The United States is not a party to Protocol I, however, and does not consider the conventions' prohibitions against reprisals directed at all civilians to be part of customary international law. On the other hand, the United States is a party to the Geneva Convention on Civilians and follows its provisions regarding reprisals against protected civilians and their property. I would argue that the commander of a terror group such as al Qaeda is a legitimate military target and not a civilian.

  2. "Thus the rebels can jam or eavesdrop on all manner of Ukrainian communications (cell phones, military communications and control equipment for UAVs and anything else operated remotely) and jam those communications as well."

    I'm waiting for the day one of our UAVs gets hijacked and used to bomb our own troops.

  3. A lot of the new US military communications infrastructure is designed to be resistant to jamming, but it's never been tested in field conditions. I expect that brute force (high power jamming) will cause far more trouble than anyone is prepared for.

  4. When Desert Storm spun up I was working for (defense contractor name redacted) so even though our stuff was only on the periphery we followed events, large, small and tiny, pretty closely. I remember thinking at the time that the Russians (who were the primary focus of our efforts) were going to learn a lot about what the US did and how we did it.

    Seems they did.

  5. In spite of her having been in charge of the "Electronic Warfare Command" I'm fairly certain Laurie Buckhout doesn't know all of our capabilities. She was a signal officer, the way things were split up (at least when I was in) electronic warfare was under the intel command and we never shared our best toys. Many of our best toys have been repurposed, but given time we could put them back in their original roles.

  6. We have long had this nifty missile that is used solely for Home-on-Jammer and most of our missiles still incorporate that capability. You'd want to be some distance from those transmitters.

    Spread spectrum radios are just about all we have these days and they're hard to jam. GPS is another matter but one I'll leave in the dark.

    I' afraid that one of the conclusions the entire world drew from our last few desert forays is that it is impossible to beat the US military with military force. All those MRAPS and Cougars and armored HMMWV we abandoned in the desert are going to be needed in the next war when some no account loser takes on the US with IED's, EFPs, suicide bombers. I won't be surprised though if somebody does start to hijack the drones. We rather foolishly exported the technology and the training and, God help us, we even trained our current enemies in their design, development, operation, maintenance and repair.

    I remember back in '84 it was a truism that neither the Iraqis or the Iranians would fly strike missions at night. Weren't I surprised to return to the Gulf in 88 and see them going hammer and tongs at each other with long distance over water strikes after dark. Doctrine and tactics have to evolve and one of the evolutionary drivers is always going to be, "how are you going to pay for that." In that sense your library story out of Britain is apropos because we don't need a hollow military long on high-tech but with only enough ammunition stocks for three days of wartime fighting consumption and a poorly trained force that never got to use the weapons in peacetime because it was too expensive to train with them.

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