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Air Force Pilots Are Learning to Fly Blind Against Chinese Electromagnetic Strikes

It's one of the greater ironies of today's remote warfare.

by Brian Anderson
Feb 19 2014, 6:30pm
Image: US Air Force / Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld

Did you hear? There's a spectrum war on, because combat power in the air and on water just isn't all it used to be.

The air battle of the future will be over control of the electromagnetic spectrum, the frequency range across which pilots, commanders, and other military officials (and most of their spy and kill machines) talk to one another. With countries like China increasingly developing the ability to carry out potentially crippling electromagnetic assaults that could confuse, stall, or outright ground bombers and drones, the US Air Force has been scrambling to deal with blasts of electronic noise.

The problem is one that ACC flight operations B-1 functional manager Lt. Col. Chris Plourde compares to the sort of decision-making protocol sometimes used by a football team on the field. How do players communicate when a stadium is so loud that no one can effectively call plays? How can it go on the offensive when even the quarterback's helmet ear-piece is drowned out? Is there a set of hand gestures that it can use instead? 

To work around such "threatened environments" high above, the Air Force is preparing its fighter pilots and drone operators, which account for an increasing share of the flight wing's fleet, for scenarios it calls "anti-access, area-denial." That's when air assets "are needed against an enemy with the ability to deny capabilities such as GPS," as the Air Force Times reported.

The threat of this sort of spectrum jamming, in which cheap, off-the-shelf devices deluge specific slices of the spectrum with noise, from China is real enough that the Air Force is ramping up its efforts to train pilots how to fly blind, according to Wired's Brendan Koerner. No radar. No radio communications. No data links. No GPS.

They call it Readiness Project 2. Launched in 2010, the program uses live drills and simulations that force pilots to operate without relying on any of the tools that keep communications, navigation equipment, and precision weaponry up and running. Per the Army Times

ACC fighter and bomber crews have similar requirements for training in contested environments: denied GPS, denied communications and denied data links. Crews plan on what backup systems they can use or what weapons they can use for a simulated bombing run. If GPS is out, laser-guided munitions are needed.

This training is done over intercontinental US soil, which poses a unique challenge: There are a few ranges that can temporarily deny GPS, data links, and other comms, but not without a 90-day heads up, the Army Times notes. That hindrance is part and parcel of some of the concerns expressed in April 2013 during The Readiness Posture of the US Air Force hearing before the US House of Representatives Committee of Armed Services.

One of the other key concerns? China, as it does, has been paying attention.  

"Our adversaries have taken careful note, they've been investing in asymmetric capabilities," Air Combat Command (ACC) Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference in September 2013. The idea, added Hostage, is to successfully navigate contested environments where "such an asymmetric attack will not stop us. It will only piss us of." 

Is a deluge of electromagnetic waves that much to worry about? Probably. Which makes it one of the greater ironies of today's remote warfare that we're training pilots to be able to fly things—and just as critically, to be able to talk to one another—with little to no reliance on the conventional tools of spectrum chatter.